Brentwood garden centre boss warns industry as he voluntarily shuts amid increasing COVID cases

A garden centre boss is urging the industry to stick to the latest set of government guidelines or face being stripped of their essential status.

Chris Bonnett who runs Bonnetts Garden Village in Brentwood has voluntarily taken the decision to shut his doors to keep staff and customers safe as the new strain of COVID-19 takes hold.

He believes that garden centres should only open if they are selling essentials like pet food and fuel and if they are not, they should be forced to shut.

Mr Bonnett says now is a good time for the industry to go into winter hibernation, ready to re-open to the public safely when restrictions are eased.

And while his garden centre is closed, he is offering it to the Government for use as a vaccination hub or a drive-in testing centre.

The gardening sector was hit hard last year when the first lockdown was announced with outlets being forced to shut their doors to the public.

During the November lockdown, garden centres were given essential status which has been retained this time round.

Mr Bonnett said: “I’m urging garden centres who are choosing to remain open not to be short-sighted and lose the essential status they’ve been fortunate enough to receive.

“We took the decision to close our garden centre before the new lockdown was announced to help in the battle to prevent spread, save lives and to keep our staff and customers safe.

“It was a heartbreaking decision, but given the current situation the country finds itself in, it was the right one.

“Since we made that decision, the whole country’s been plunged into a third lockdown and I’m calling on those centres that have opened to ensure they do only sell essential items and don’t abuse the trust they’ve been give.

“What concerns me is that some operations may brazenly remain open whilst everything else is further restricted all around. We have to act responsibly and collectively so customers trust us when those of us that are closed, and other retail outlets are finally allowed to reopen.

“The industry was fortunately provided the status of essential early on in the pandemic and able to recover the important spring trade It has also benefited through the November lockdown in being one of the only exceptions in retail allowed to trade, but with the situation as dynamic as it is, and the virus now more rampant and contagious than ever, it really is about keeping everyone safe.”

He added: “Now is a good time for the sector to go into a winter hibernation so things can open up again fully unhindered in spring whilst retaining essential status.

“Winter is often the quieter slacker period for the trade and the furlough scheme can be used too so there is less of a financial hit. Management teams can also make internal adjustments as a result of the Brexit deal and new plant health regulations that come into force during this period.

“Come spring, people will be desperate to get back out in the garden and will seek solace in the gardening activities they got so used to during the first lockdown. This is when we need to be ready in a strong and safe way to support them.

“This is difficult and frustrating for everyone, but as an industry, garden centres need to work together in a coordinated way so we’re ready for the important months ahead and in a good position post-COVID-19.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter