Stallholders are demanding to know why Cambridge’s market has more restrictions than any other like it in the country.
They argue that fewer than half of the stalls offering services deemed ‘essential’ by the government have been allowed to return to the market square, despite being legally allowed to open. And the traders say the atmosphere created by the fences around the market – some of which prevent shoppers from browsing goods – have made it like a prison.
The barriers were installed to encourage social distancing and prevent transmission of Covid-19. Traders argue that diverting people to supermarkets by failing to open more stalls poses the bigger risk.
Bill Proud, a spokesman for the Cambridge Market Traders’ Association, said: “The current operation of the market is the most restrictive of any comparable open-air market in the UK, according to the National Market Traders Federation.
“All other markets allow the full range of ‘essential’ traders to operate. In Cambridge, only a subset of essential traders are operating – less than 50 per cent. The Covid infection rates are around 60 per cent of the national average.”
He added: “We don’t understand why there are so many restrictions here compared with other local markets such as Ely, which have continued to operate normally with all essential traders being allowed back.”
‘Essential’ trade covers stalls selling food and fresh produce, hot food and drinks, soap and services such as bike repairs.
The market was closed down at the turn of the year by the city council due to fears that overcrowding could help spread the virus. But after more than 7,000 people signed a petition demanding it be reopened, some essential stalls were allowed back, with new barriers and signage to encourage social distancing.
Mr Proud said that traders were suffering financially because the government grant offered barely covered one week’s takings.
He said: “Out of that people have to pay their mortgage or rent as well as outgoings such as warehouse hire. Some traders are having to visit food banks just to survive. People may start looking at other local markets that allow all essential traders to work and wonder if they should jump ship.”
And he said there was no good explanation why cafes and restaurants in the city could sell takeaway hot food and drinks while market traders could not.
However, Labour city councillor Rosy Moore, whose responsibilities include the market, said that a risk assessment had to be made before any decision was taken on opening more stalls.
“We are carrying out a new risk assessment and that has to be signed off by public health. We hope to make an announcement this week about some stalls coming back.
“It’s a bit more complicated this time because more traders want to trade than last June, when not everybody wanted to come back and we think the city centre is likely to be busier.”
Explaining why Cambridge was different from all other outdoor markets in the country, Cllr Moore said: “We can only look at the situation in Cambridge.
“We want the market itself to be safe but we also don’t want the market to be an attraction that creates an issue in the city centre of too many people crowding there.
“So that’s going to be very different to Ely, for instance, which will not attract the same numbers of people as Cambridge.
“And Peterborough is in such a different position for their reopening because they can fit more tables and chairs around the city centre – they just have more space.
“I haven’t looked in depth at what other councils are doing. We are just doing what we feel is right for Cambridge.”