The Virus That Stole Christmas: How Coronavirus Threatens UK Markets

Updated: Mar 30

Coronavirus, a disease that’s spread across the world, could be the greatest challenge UK’s traditional markets have seen in decades. One of Europe’s largest indoor markets, Leeds Kirkgate, has seen a severe decrease in footfall in the run up to Christmas; something that traders are concerned could be the final nail in the coffin after years of uncertainty.

The ornate entrance to Leeds Kirkgate Market.
The ornate entrance to Leeds Kirkgate Market.

Newspapers swirled like mini tornadoes above the cold, puddled streets. Gaggles of eager Christmas shoppers looking to bag a bargain, frantically stood awaiting the high-street’s opening this year were nowhere to be seen. Black Friday was cancelled.

The apartment blocks of the future stood empty; discount signs hanging besides locked doors, mannequins staring out towards soulless, barren streets. The shotgun start to Christmas shopping wouldn’t be that Friday. The second lockdown made sure of that.

Desolation spread like a virus into the heart of the city that day as only essential traders were authorised to pull their shutters up. The market’s impressive ornate facades, topped by large, grey domes pointing to the sky seemed overkill, as the market stood motionless.

Butchers hoisted pig carcasses onto chopping boards for prime cuts of meat to go left unsold; a row of perfectly green Christmas trees lined the walls of the entrance as a proud display, their handwritten tags untouched. The seller leant against the arched entrance of the market, smoking a cigarette looking pensively to the streets outside.

The hall, at this time, would usually be filled with jubilant Christmas shoppers but now didn’t display a single smile. The year had been tough, and the following weeks were make or break.

Joanne Johnson, well known around the market for her longstanding commitment to The Nut Shop, stood atop piles of fresh nuts, sanitising the counter. Her face framed by jars filled with nutty treats. A single customer viewed the produce from afar as I approached.

“It’s cut our Christmas trading in half,” a usually bubbly personality, now deflated with despair. “We’re six weeks away from Christmas, this should be our busiest time. But look at it,” she said, gesturing with her arms towards the empty hall. “We’re getting slaughtered. Just as we were gaining momentum at the back end of summer, we’re struck with more restrictions, this time, just weeks before Christmas.”

Joanne had worn the red and white pinstripe apron for 37 years, having landed a Saturday job at 14. Now at 51, she recognises Coronavirus as the biggest threat since the shop’s opening nearly 7 decades ago.

As she explained how difficult the past year had been, tears began to choke her. “Of course, I understand the reasoning behind this, and people are dying, but this about people’s livelihoods too. Usually there’d be three of us behind this counter, but now it’s just me, working 6 full days every week. I simply can’t afford help.”

However, a feeling most common among the essential traders that day was hope. Joanne voiced concerns that she might even be overrun if people were to return the following week, once the country returned to a tier system, allowing all stalls to reopen for business. Those selling food in the airy 1875 hall reiterated the point; that in a weeks’ time, the second lockdown will be lifted, and all stalls will once again reopen, bringing busy Christmas shoppers with them.

But no.

Their hope was a misjudgement of the future. For, a week later, despite lockdown restrictions being lifted, frequent shoppers of the market remained hesitant to return. Whilst footfall inevitably did increase, it was much less than was hoped for. Christmas songs now echoing from tinny speakers, frequently interrupted by safety messages imploring shoppers to wear masks and “have a great day,” fused with the optimistic calls from traders hopelessly fading into the void.

“I believe it’s because of the demographic of the market,” Steve Firth, owner of a small bakery stall pondered, “our typical customer is either elderly, or an office worker, neither of which are in the city right now.” He stood with a defeated posture, diving bread buns into packs of six. A man approached as he continued, “it’s been heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking. We’d usually have a persistent queue wrapped around here all day.” He spoke with a furrowed brow as he gently placed the final bread buns into the plastic wrap before slowly trudging over to the customer.

Much like Joanne, Steve has roots going back decades as he bought his first stall over 20 years ago. Whilst the growth of supermarkets over recent decades has proven to make matters difficult for traders, the owner of Firth and Payne Bakery admitted that he’d never had a year like 2020.

“If I’m frank, I can’t guarantee you a job in four weeks’ time. If you’re offered another job, just take it. Don’t bother with notices and the likes, just take it,” he selflessly urged his team just weeks before the second lockdown.

He explained that this conversation was the most difficult thing he’d had to do in the two decades of trading. Letting go of staff members, weeks before Christmas, was nothing more than a ship’s captain telling his crew to jump ship, just moments before a large battle. “Don’t worry about me, just save yourselves.”

Although, despite hopes for a climb out of tier 3 just moments before Christmas, the country was notified on December 17th that no region would have restrictions lifted, greatly unwelcome news around the city. Even the leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, voiced her grief by saying, “we understand this decision will be difficult to hear, but which tier Leeds falls into is ultimately the Government’s to make and our view due to falling infection rates as well as the extensive plans we have in place is that Leeds could safely be moved to Tier 2.”

Many believed that Leeds would have restrictions reduced, and just a week of normal Christmas shopping would occur but the announcement of a further two weeks under travel bans and restaurant restrictions firmly prevented that.

With just a week left before Christmas, not much had changed in the tight corridors between the stalls. “Don’t forget it’s mad Friday too,” a trader reminded me as I asked about the quietness. A day that would usually see frantic, last-minute shoppers, remained woefully tranquil, mirroring the Black Friday just weeks before.

Sat alone, defying the black and yellow tape on the red stools of Café Express, was an elderly man, shopping for a final time before Christmas. Mr. Miller awaited his usual order from the café stall he’d frequented for years, placing the thin, blue market carrier bags on the cold concrete beside him.

“I’m only sitting here because of my back. I’ve suffered with scoliosis for many a year and standing up just kills it,” he chuckled, acknowledging that he was breaking the rules as the café owner handed him a coffee in a white, Styrofoam cup.

He dressed smartly. His long green, knee length overcoat appeared impeccably brand new, despite being over fifty years old. “This’ll be handed to the first beggar I see. I’ve had it since I was 15, but I upgraded today,” he parted the opening of one of his bags, with smiling eyes, displaying a new leather jacket. His mouth obscured by a brown mask his wife had hand-sewn in May.

“I’m 72 now and I’ve been coming to this market since I was 5, so you do the maths,” he told me, patting his platinum hair down with one hand, warming his other with the steam from his drink. “At this time back then, I’d have been lifted from the floor as I tried to walk, it would have been that crowded. Supermarkets and the online have threatened this place, this virus has simply finished it off, as it will to many businesses.”

Brian, as he’s known to his family and close friends, admitted to travelling on the train from Knottingley in order to buy some final Christmas presents for his wife back at home. “It’s sad. I’ve known many of these traders since I was a young’n, but generations move on. It would be devastating to see this place go, because it’s not just the stalls and the building, but to everyone selling something today, they rely on this place. And everything you need’s here! Though maybe this virus has proven that we live in different times to when I was your age.”

He continued by explaining that, whilst the market wasn’t a place he travelled to on a weekly basis for his food shop, it will continue to be a part of his Leeds visit. Unlike larger chain stores and supermarkets, the stalls that reside under the large domes of Kirkgate Market are families. They’re small groups of hard workers who graft each day in the cold. Together. But the colours in the fresh fruit and flowers seems under-saturated. The vibrancy feels false somehow, as though at any point, the colours would drain to grey and align with the mood of the market.

No matter what happens the previous day, the market opens its doors to anyone and everyone. From selling carpets and mattresses, to fruit and sweets, stall owners are battling through this to come out the other side. Though, sadly for traditional markets around the country, Coronavirus could be the final nail in the coffin after an uncertain few years. Grocery shopping will continue, for most, under the fluorescent lights of the soulless supermarket, buying plastic-covered goods from self-checkouts. The purchase of luxuries will remain behind the computer screen as we all evolve into greater consumption machines and grow further apart from one another. Who knows how long markets and their traders will be able to continue battling the odds to stay trading?

“They don’t make marzipan fruits anymore, all we have for cake decorations are the little figures here,” Joanne explained to a customer as I walked towards the exit. She looked up and smiled, before wishing me a Merry Christmas. The hope that had been extinguished in November now seemed to be replaced by acceptance, “I’m just trying to put a smile on and enjoy Christmas. We’re just about managing to keep our heads above water for now. Though I daren’t even think about January.”