There's no rest for wicked Britain

Not so long ago, the British Sunday was sacred. Now even the banks are opening. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online
WHERE New York never slept, Britain was once the sleepy Sunday capital of the world. But not any more.

Now there are Sunday supermarkets, Sunday afternoon drinking and the full 24-hour, seven-day-a-week society moved a step nearer yesterday with Sunday banking.

Few other countries have seen the traditional day of rest eroded to such an extent. In Israel, the Jewish Sabbath holds supreme and in many Arab countries, banks and other services close on Friday. In the Indian sub- continent, banks are closed on Sundays.

Yesterday, Halifax, Britain's biggest mortgage lender, opened the doors of 200 branches in a three-month pilot Sunday opening scheme, believed to be the first of its kind in Britain, for its 20 million customers.

Spokesman Mark Hemingway said: "We know that people want to shop on a Sunday - it's the second busiest day of the week in terms of customer transactions (after Saturday). We think there is a demand for our services too, but the only way to find out is to do it."

Two hundred of its 900 branches opened from 11am to 3pm to coincide with the spring house-buying rush.

The Halifax's network of estate agents already open on Sundays and the bank, which converted from a building society last year, considers it logical for people to arrange their mortgage on the same day as they find their dream home. The first mortgage was arranged within hours of opening yesterday.

Mr Hemingway said: "It's certainly breaking with tradition. If you look back 15 or 20 years, some of the traditional banks, like Barclays and Lloyds, only opened until 3pm weekdays and not at all on Saturdays. Things have changed completely."

Some banks and building societies have opened on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas and the Abbey National and Midland Bank have a handful of branches in supermarkets.

Barclays, which pioneered Saturday opening in 1982, is to open six branches on Sundays soon after a trial in Milton Keynes. Britain's first 24-hour telephone banking service, First Direct, opened in 1989. A spokeswoman said Saturdays were almost as busy as Monday to Fridays and it had found business on Sundays "steady". "Flexibility suits most people and other banks and building societies are beginning to realise it," she said.

However, the move towards a society that is never closed does not please everyone. The Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU) has expressed concern at extending its members work duties. And the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which lost the fight against Sunday supermarket opening, remains critical.

John Alexander, the campaign manager, said: "We are moving towards the 24-hour society, but our information is that people think it's getting a little bit out of hand."

Knowing how long it took to arrange a mortgage, it was "ridiculous" to suggest that people needed a bank open on a Sunday in case they bought a new house.

"A World Health Organisation survey showed there was strong medical evidence that we do need a shared day of rest if you're going to have any kind of family life. All the other European countries accept this entirely and have some form of restrictions," Mr Alexander said.

"We think the backlash will come in Britain. Obviously we won't go back to square one, but we can stop some of the more ridiculous claims that are being made."

Sunday world: Germany

Banks, supermarkets, department stores, DIY centres and even corner shops are forbidden by law from opening.

Travellers, however, are exempted from the inconveniences meted out to ordinary folk, and as a consequence filling stations have been busily converting themselves into small supermarkets, while many railway stations have been transformed into shopping malls. - Imre Karacs

France

For the laid-back Parisian, Sunday still remains a day of rest. Out of deference to the requirement for good food, the bakeries and butchers open for a few hours in the morning. But by 1pm, even the small neighbourhood shops will join the supermarkets and department stores in shutting their doors.

Families can enjoy the cinema or a theatre matinee and many museums are half-price. But getting to them may be tricky as the public transport is limited and eating afterwards may be a problem as many restaurants are closed. -Louise Jury

United States Sunday mornings in central Washington and all is quiet bar the occasional jogger, runner and cyclist. But elsewhere, people are getting into their cars and going to church - church-going still defines Sunday in much of America, Washington included. The afternoon is for shopping and the malls are all open. Banks, however, stay firmly closed. -Mary Dejevsky

China In Peking, Sunday and shopping have become synonymous.Those with money elbow their way through the crowds in the newest shopping centres and department stores. Those without can be seen lining the pavements selling trinkets to passers-by.

Sunday is a not a day of rest, it is a day for commerce - even though all banks and government offices are shut. - Teresa Poole

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