The last few days have marked a sea-change in the UK's atmosphere, as the nation moved collectively from half-measures into what every commentator and politician calls a war footing against the threat from Covid-19. Bars and restaurants were closed on Friday, much of the high street has voluntarily ceased trading (here's the latest list), and today at 7pm even McDonalds will serve its last Big Mac for a while. And yet, just as with all those social media images of dickheads flouting the advice and doing very stupid things, there remain the outliers.
The UK's last major specialist retailer of video games is GAME. Its only real competition for space on the high street comes from CEX, an exclusively secondhand retailer which also trades in entertainment stuff and tech. Both remain open on the high street, which for GAME means 250 sites while CEX has 381. Even accepting that not all those stores may currently remain open (particularly in CEX's case, where a large chunk of the total stores are franchises), it should be clear that there is something very wrong going on at scale here.
Everyone knows the anti-Covid measures we should now be using, as well as self-isolating, include washing our hands, especially after touching stuff other folk might have touched, avoiding gatherings and staying two metres away from people if outside. Now, going into a CEX store at the best of times can feel a bit like entering a cesspit of disease. I'm kidding right, but also kind of not. This is a place where there are shelves of game boxes, big glass displays that people are constantly pointing at things through, and there's about three feet of space across aisles. The entire business model revolves around people going to trade-in goods, even if they're not buying anything, so you've got all these physical items coming in from god-knows-where and being exchanged back-and-forth every day.
If you wanted to design a place that would give the World Health Organisation palpitations at this exact moment in time, you really couldn't do much better.
GAME stores are usually smaller in floorspace, and are filled with game boxes, merch, t-shirt displays and so on. Things you touch. This Eurogamer report gives a closer look at the unease of employees having to go into work and, as reported earlier today, the company has announced its 'Belong' arenas have been closed but stores remain open.
Our news editor Alistair Jones noted the timing of these closures: "With customers pouring in all weekend to pick up physical copies of what are undoubtedly the two biggest releases of 2020 so far [Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons], many of the company's employees will have been put at unnecessary risk all week. The company will also have benefited from keeping its Belong arenas open all weekend, putting profit first at a time when the need for social distancing is become increasingly apparent."
The course of action set by the UK government is evolving, but it's pretty clear we're in a time that requires serious co-operation and collective responsibility. Last week saw flashpoints with companies that signalled an intention to continue trading such as Waterstones, the country's largest book retailer, which today has announced a u-turn and is closing all its stores. Others such as WH Smith persist, and in that case is unbelievably trying to position itself as an 'essential service' in order to remain open.
Earlier today, responding to a question concerning specifically beauty salons and building sites that remain open, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said "it was clear this morning that there are too many people across the country who are being expected to go to work as normal."
Some shops have to stay open, like supermarkets, and all we can do is mitigate risk as best we can. People must have access to food and supplies. There's nothing necessary about Mario plushies and secondhand Xbox games, nevermind the fact that every game these shops sell is available digitally. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg suggests that Number 10 is considering forcing the closure of non-essential shops:
Govt considering next steps like closing non-essential retail or whether to start treating people flouting the stay at home advice as acting against the law - all being discussed - huge decisions, nothing final
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) March 23, 2020
GAME and CEX show why this has to be done, and the reasoning can be explained in two questions. Do I trust the advice being provided by government, informed by medical experts and in the context of a global pandemic? Or do I think the senior leadership teams of CEX and GAME probably know better, and it's all a bit exaggerated anyway innit, and trust these chains to ensure the safety of their staff, customers, and the wider public?
I'm not blaming the employees who go in for their shift (even if they should know better), many of whom have voiced their own concerns. It's senior management teams that make decisions like these, or in this case fail to, and how many of them do you think are on the shop floor? CEX and GAME are at this point gambling not only with their staff and customers' lives, but with the UK's response as a whole. If these companies don't have management responsible enough to do the right thing by the rest of us, the government has to force the issue - and fast.
Update (9:30pm, 23 March: Boris Johnson has ordered a UK-wide lockdown, including the closure of all non-essential stores.
Update (4.35pm, 23 March): IGN UK has just reported that CEX is closing all its stores tonight for at least two weeks.
Read more: Why Does Everybody Hate GAME?