Shoppers have been told they can click-and-collect items from outlets categorised as “non-essential”, but Downing Street has denied a quiet loosening of the lockdown.
As garden centres begin to offer pick-up sales – with other retailers expected to follow – No 10 said the practice is legal and insisted there has been no change to the restrictions imposed five weeks ago.
It was pointed out that it meant people could now leave their homes to buy “pot plants and compost”, which were clearly not essential goods under the list set out on 23 March.
But Boris Johnson’s spokesman denied a shift, saying: “No, I don’t think that means the advice has changed.
“It has always been the case that there were businesses such as pubs – which couldn’t open in the usual way – but could make things available to collect.
“That is important to enshrine the wellbeing of the economy.”
Nevertheless, the original rules made clear that pubs could stay open for takeaways only if they were also selling essential food.
The clarification will fuel suspicions that ministers are happy to allow a gradual reopening of the economy, while publicly insisting it is too early to relax the lockdown.
In the Commons, Dominic Raab, standing in for Mr Johnson, hinted Tory MPs pleading for garden centres to reopen fully would not be disappointed for long.
“I understand entirely why it is so important, both economically and socially, particularly for certain members of our community, for whom it will be an important means of getting outdoors and getting out of the lockdown.”
The foreign secretary said it would depend on the latest scientific advice, but told Mark Pritchard: “He has made his point in a powerful way and it is firmly registered that this is an important area to look at for the future.”
According to the list published on 23 March, when the lockdown was announced, “agricultural supplies shops” could remain open, but there was no mention of garden centres.
James Barnes, chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, said the clarification was “good news”, but argued garden centres needed to be allowed to open fully to survive.
A growing numbers of businesses, including DIY stores, construction firms and take-away food chains have reopened in recent days, requiring their workers to travel.
However, Mr Raab dashed suggestions that the government would set out options to ease the lockdown later this week, when the prime minister is expected to make sort of public statement.
The cabinet will meet on Thursday, but MPs were told not to expect a decisive intervention until and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had weighed the latest evidence on the coronavirus infection rate.
“We cannot give it until we have the Sage evidence,” Mr Raab said, adding: “We cannot be pulled into making proposals in advance.”
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