Simon Kelner: Get used to it, new Sunday hours will be here to stay

Kelner's view

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What are you looking forward to most in the Olympics? Usain Bolt breaking another world record in the 100 metres? Tom Daley going for gold with a back two-and-a-half somersaults and two-and-a-half twists? Britain (or Team GB, to use the awful marketing-speak) maintaining its dominance in rowing? Or just the sheer spectacle of it all, the sense that, for a couple of weeks, the world – in all its extraordinary variety and colour – will converge on London?

There's one thing I can guarantee it won't be, however: the relaxation of Sunday trading laws which, for the duration of the Olympics and the subsequent Paralympics, mean that opening hours for big stores won't be restricted to just six hours. These measures will, according to reports, be announced in Wednesday's Budget and then rushed through Parliament, allowing stores to open all day for a period of eight weeks.

No one is seriously suggesting, however, that this will be a temporary state of affairs. Get used to it: the new Sunday hours will be here to stay. So, as soon as the starting gun for the Olympics is fired, you'll be able to do your own Sabbath triathlon: a sprint round Harrods, a hop, skip and a jump to Harvey Nicks and a cross-country race to Selfridges against the clock.

Predictably, God and Mammon are on other sides in this debate. The Treasury argues that there will be a significant – and very timely – boost to the economy, and they estimate that the new hours will boost retailers' profits by as much as £90m. The Church, on the other hand, sees this as further erosion of the special nature of a Sunday, and another assault on religious observance.

But what about those who will now have to work longer hours on a Sunday just to fit in with the demanding schedule of an Olympic visitor who has both the 4x400m relay and a spot of tax-free shopping on his or her mind? We hear an awful lot from this particular government about its family-friendly policies, but this new legislation can only take more people away from their loved ones (or even their families!) for longer.

As recently as 2010, an opinion poll showed that 89 per cent of those questioned opposed longer trading hours on a Sunday, and while there is little doubt that the economy needs as much help as it can get, it does seem that the Government has put short-term gain over quality-of-life issues. (In any case, the economic case is not proved: the possibility exists that the same cash take may be spread over longer opening hours.)

Usdaw, the shop workers' union, says its members already have a struggle to achieve a work-life balance, and this latest move will only make that worse. At the same time, I'm not really concerned by the possibility of further falls in church attendance. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the worries of religious leaders, which I believe are rooted in something more profound. It's that shopping is in danger of supplanting Christianity as the most popularly observed religion. People invest their retail habits with an almost spiritual dimension. Designers are given their own iconography. Department stores are the new cathedrals. And the warning is clear: beware of false profits!

 

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