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Fears over sales crowds contributed to non-essential retail closure

Fears over sales crowds contributed to non-essential retail closure

Thursday 21 January 2021

Fears over sales crowds contributed to non-essential retail closure


Fears islanders would crowd in shops to catch a bargain in the sales, and a keenness to convey the "serious" covid situation the island was in, were among the reasons scientific advisers recommended closing non-essential retail in December - despite there being low virus transmission within shops.

The rationale for the closures emerged in STAC meeting minutes released less than 24 hours ahead of Ministers agreeing to reopen retail on 27 January.

The opening announcement was made shortly before 23:00 last night, alongside a pledge to allow close contact services (including hair, beauty, massage, and tattoo and piercing services) to reopen the following Wednesday (7 February).

While the measures, which came into force on Christmas Eve, were due to end on 6 January, the Minister then extended them by another two weeks.

At a press conference on 7 January, Ministers explained their plan to exit 'lockdown lite', saying that they would consider lifting restrictions at two-week intervals to allow them time to assess the impact of each measure.

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Pictured: Non-essential shops have been closed since Christmas Eve.

Minutes released yesterday morning show that the closure of non-essential retail was discussed by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC) on 17 December 2020, following a request from advice from the Competent Authority Ministers who had met the day before.

With 881 active cases and 4,914 direct contacts at the time, Ministers wanted to know what option out of the three they had been presented with would be the best in preventing more infections. 

The options ranged from no change, to tighter restrictions - particularly around household gatherings - to a further circuit break, which could involve the closure of non-essential retail and the prevention of inter-household mixing, with a potential exception for the 25 and 26 December.

The Cell was not unanimous on what the best course of action should be. Some believed the peak of the second wave had been reached while others were concerned that numbers would keep increasing. 

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Pictured: The majority of cases identified between 1 and 18 December had been transmitted at home.

The Group Director, Financial Services and Digital Economy, suggested the data did not appear to suggest the closure of non-essential retail as the majority of cases identified between 1 and 18 December had been transmitted at home.

He also highlighted that any decision to close could lead to panic-buying and people congregating in the shops in advance of the measure coming into place. 

The Cell recommended that Ministers didn’t make any decision until 21 December to see whether cases numbers would continue to rise or not. 

In the paper provided by Ministers, they noted the relatively low spread of the virus within shops and workplaces, but added that keeping them open, might lead islanders to believe “the situation was not as serious as it actually was."

They also highlighted that, in addition to causing a rush to the shops, closures could also lead islanders to gather together more in their homes, as they had little to do. 

At the following meeting on 21 December, cases had gone up to 939 with a daily average of 30 patients with covid in the hospital.

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Pictured: Concerns were raised over islanders crowding into shops during sales.

According to the Principal Officer for Public Health Intelligence, nothing in the data suggested the virus had spread within retail premises. While there had been 195 positive cases with no known sources in December, she said these did not demonstrate a set pattern.

The Cell’s Chair, Dr Patrick Armstrong MBE, suggested the closure of non-essential retail premises would affect the more vulnerable in society, both financially and in terms of their mental wellbeing and would feel akin to a ‘lockdown’. 

Meanwhile, Dr Muscat said he didn’t feel the hospitality ‘circuit breaker’ had had any effect on case numbers, though the effect might have been “disguised” by the pressure from the new variant of the virus if it was in the island.

The following day, the Cell recommended the closure with Dr Armstrong noting the number of cases had not declined as expected following the introduction of previous mitigating measures. Knowing that islanders would be celebrating with family and friends over the festive period, he questioned the wisdom of enabling people to congregate more than necessary and supported the closure for two weeks.

Several other members of the Cell supported the idea, including Dr Muscat and an Environmental Health Consultant, who noted how people would be crowding in shops “hoping for bargains in the sales."

The decision wasn’t unanimous, however.

The Independent Advisor for Epidemiology and Public Health was not wholly convinced that non-essential retail premises posed either a high, or moderate, risk, compared to care homes, the Hospital and people’s own houses. 

He was only supportive of closing close contact services and suggested tighter controls to prevent crowding inside and outside retail premises, rather than forcing them to close. 

Read more Express analysis from the latest collection of STAC minutes…

Government didn’t seek scientific advice on initial Christmas guidance

Scientific advisers raised concerns weeks ahead of care home covid spike

Revealed: Ministers' bid to reopen hospitality in December

“More testing does not mean more people being tested”

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