Oxford Street tries to solve the riddle of social distancing

Footpaths with clear markings on the pavement, increased parking for bikes and no discounts in store on Oxford Street

Debenhams has vowed to reopen most of its stores despite having put itself into administration in April Credit: JOHN SIBLEY/REUTERS

London’s Oxford Street is ready for business, albeit as a shadow of its former self, devoid of the hustle-and-bustle that irritated locals and excited tourists. 

The New West End Company (NWEC), which represents more than 600 retailers and leisure businesses around Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, has laid out plans to reopen the shopping district as the Government is poised to relax restrictions this weekend.

Although no date has been set, the streets have been deep cleaned for local residents and its returning 150,000 workers. Businesses have been liaising with Transport for London and Westminster City Council as they expect people to trickle in. 

There will be footpaths on the pavement provided with clear markings to enforce social distancing. People will be encouraged to walk or cycle to Oxford Street, with plans to add more bicycle parking as well as dedicated walking routes from other areas in London. 

This will be no easy task, however, for an area that has relied so heavily on public transport, especially the underground, says Jace Tyrell, the chief executive of the NWEC. 

In normal times, about 70pc of shoppers and workers arrived on public transport. With the latest suggestions that people should stay one or two metres away from each other when travelling, capacity would barely hit 20pc

“We’ve got to rebuild that confidence for people to want to spend time outside again. That is why the reopening should be gradual and we need everyone to work in tandem on this. 

“But top of our mind is having safety. For the longer-term it is really critical we get this right.”

The guidelines have been built on businesses that have reopened in China and on the Continent. Early signs in other countries suggest that people are spending money. Nonetheless, sales are unlikely to return to pre-coronavirus levels. 

In the West End, 50pc of the footfall was from UK and overseas tourists, accounting for half of the £10bn it raked in every year. Restrictions on travel will continue, so that cash will be lost, at least for now.

Retailers and hotels in the area have called for clear instructions from the Government on social distancing and personal protective equipment as they wake up from hibernation. They are worried that inconsistencies in their approach could see sites shut again. 

They will encourage hand washing and staff will wear protective uniforms. Plastic screens will no doubt make an appearance at the tills, similarly to supermarkets. 

The hope is that the capital’s West End will act like a blueprint for other major high streets across the country such as Manchester, Edinburgh or Bicester Village. 

Stores will have waiting areas to the left of the main entrance to avoid queues. To avoid overcrowding, brands have been encouraged to limit promotions and only discount their wares online.

But with an estimated £15bn of leftover coronavirus stock, some businesses will be left with no choice but to try and shift products quickly to make some money. Some businesses might choose not to play ball, and defer reopenings if they can afford to. 

Julian Dunkerton, the boss of Superdry, which has its flagship store on Regent Street, said: “It’s one store out of hundreds, so it doesn’t cause me a lack of sleep. The reality is people will just shop more locally and online.”

This month, upmarket department store chain Selfridges, near Bond Street, opened its food hall for the first time since lockdown, to serve locals. 

Separately, the British Retail Consortium has said that the Government should let shops decide when they are ready to open. At the moment, small shops would be the first to reopen in early June, with large shopping centres following in the second phase, according to reports.

Such a move has been criticised. It would be detrimental to the West End as well, where the majority of stores have several floors and are relatively large. Arguably, the larger the space, the easier it should be to implement social distancing measures. 

The BRC said: “This approach provides the least economic benefit and poses the greatest risk to health. It is the worst of both worlds.”

Fresh figures from accountancy firm BDO show that online sales have rocketed in April by 109pc compared to last year, the highest level since records began in 2010. 

This was not enough, however, to offset the impact on Britain’s largely closed high streets, with retail sales plunging 30pc.