It is a start. Not so long since, the major shopping street of the West End was silent, empty, and even at what should have been peak times there may have been just one or two souls visible on it, not using the vast emporia ranged along it but just taking it as a way for exercise, not even ‘a way between the one tavern and the one shop that leads nowhere and fails at the top’ as there was no tavern open nor shop.
Then this week they appeared: the shoppers, absent before, now in multiples. Shops have opened – not all of them by any means, but some – expressing a piety about social distancing that most of us gave up months ago, and little queues are seen along the pavements (except for those little, practical shops we know where they take these things is a better spirit and let us get on with buying things, but say not a word).
However the shops are still starved of their due.
Commuters are few: the trains even in the rush hour carry a mere drizzle passengers, and even those lines where I would usually be crushed in the door, my face pressed against the glass, are carrying just a few per carriage. On the journeys into town all are now in masks in a variety of styles from the clinical to the black professional to those that would not seem out of place being fumbled on hurriedly in a trench at Ypres – masks that are whipped off though for long mobile conversations or a good coughing fit, on trains provided in a fitful, lackadaisical manner.
The customers are not coming. Without them, the shops will die. They need the commuters and they need those who just come into the big town for a shopping trip or a gawp, but they will not come when any doubt is a hesitation is a cancellation. The Chinese are absent too, and their credit cards. It will be a lean summer.
Much could be clawed back if the pubs and restaurants were open again. People with open wallets will not come in from the suburbs and the farther towns if they have to go home again for lunch and the loo, but tempt them to stay all day and into the evening and the tills will ring: the closure of pubs, cafés and restaurants does not just beggar their owners but all the shops in the town.
On that sector of the economy the rest hinges. Licensing rules then should be under the spotlight: if the government are still afeared to open everything, then councils can at least allow the most entrepreneurial bar-owners and restaurateurs to open in new ways. They have started to do so in Westminster, apparently to the horror of the council’s jacks-in-office, by opening up on the street and serving eager customers by waiter service or through hatches. Good for them.
Licences can be flexible. In the old days, you were either allowed to open or not, with a single sheet of paper as a licence and everyone had the same rules and so everyone was banned from novelty. The reformed system is thanks to Mr Blair’s team (and I rarely say that) and it gives almost infinite flexibility through the imposition of detailed conditions appropriate to the business, premises and location. Councils as licensing authorities early on allowed take-away service where there had been none, and that is a good start, but what else do proprietors want to be able to do? They must listen and react, and grant temporary alterations to licensing conditions, or at least letters of comfort about non-enforcement of the more stringent conditions if that is what it takes.
We need to hear the roar return, from the bars and the restaurants, and as soon as can be, the theatres. Small towns may be working again, but the great cities which are the great workhouses of the national economy, work to a different dynamic and for them, the politicians should come to a realisation that it is no use reopening the shops unless you reopen the stream of customers.