Shops large and small across England breathed a sigh of relief on Monday as “non-essential” retailers were permitted to reopen after three months away.
While a welcome sign of high streets returning to some kind of normality, there is still much that is different. Combining a shopping trip with a well-earned lunch in a café or restaurant remains a distant memory for now. And, for many people, needing a trip to the loo has suddenly become a cause of real anxiety.
The shutdown of the entire hospitality sector has exposed how ill-served for toilets many of our places are. For years, councils have been quietly shutting their public conveniences, forcing us to use the local shopping centre or Wetherspoons instead. Yet loos aren’t a nice-to-have – if you’re pregnant, have bladder problems, or are even just shopping with kids in tow, they’re a lifeline.
Having chatted to shopping centre managers during lockdown, I know that many have grappled with the issue of temporarily closing their toilets. Cleaning isn’t usually the problem. It’s the fact that shopping centre loos are often located in places that make safe queuing and social distancing near impossible – down a narrow corridor, or off a staircase.
Yet, from conversations I’ve had, it’s clear that loos being shut is a genuine concern for many people. Some won’t go shopping again until that changes. Others will specifically head somewhere they know toilets are open, or just nip to their nearest high street – continuing the “shop local, shop little” trend that we’ve seen drive footfall to smaller centres during lockdown.
Councils, rightly, are being encouraged by government to reopen loos that they’d temporarily closed. And shopping centres will often open them up for a customer in need – though many, by then, may be too nervous or stressed to ask.
Longer term, we must stop closing public loos, and build more. But for now, as lockdown eases, it’s the town centres opening up their toilets that will surely be flush with success.
This comment piece was originally written for the Daily Express.