HUNDREDS of thousands of pounds were lost to Liverpool retailers yesterday when five men dressed as Father Christmas brought city centre traffic to a virtual standstill.
Business leaders feared the protest, which caused all eight lanes of The Strand to be cordoned off by police for three and a half hours, would put shoppers off visiting the city on the final late closing day before Christmas.
Hundreds of commuters were also caught up in the protest with tailbacks to the Birkenhead Tunnel.
Ed Oliver, Liverpool Stores Committee chairman, said the chaos was a blow for city centre retailers.
He said: "It will have cost stores hundreds of thousands of pounds today because the protest was covered on the national television news and people will have stayed away from Liverpool because of the traffic tailbacks.
"It means they will have gone to Manchester, the Trafford Centre, Cheshire Oaks and Chester to do their last-minute buying instead of to Liverpool.
"All our advertising has been geared to the last Thursday before Christmas with travel offers on the trains in the evening and this has thrown it into chaos.
"This protest is disgraceful because it is driving trade away from Liverpool city centre and it's giving the wrong message."
The protesters, members of the Fathers 4 Justice campaign, stationed themselves on the roof of the footbridge spanning The Strand, to protest against current child custody laws, at around 7.30am yesterday.
They had a tent, food and supplies to last them for three days.
Merseyside Police were forced to call in specially trained officers before the men could be lifted to the ground by a fire engine's cherry picker crane.
Two men left the roof at around 9.30am and the other three had been lifted down by noon. All five were arrested.
Senior members of Liverpool City Council are calling for Chief Constable Norman Bettison to investigate the speed of police response to the situation.
Council leader Mike Storey said: "I have long said that the speed of response of the police is not good enough but it is out of the council's control.
"Is the same true of other specialisms? Would it take the police as long to get a team together if it was the bomb squad? It shouldn't be four hours, it should be four minutes."
Coun Joe Anderson, Labour opposition leader, added: "Such a dramatic lack of action from police for four hours just isn't acceptable.
"We need an explanation and I shall be writing to the Chief Constable to demand one.
"Why were specialist officers needed to get them down or climb on a walkway.
It's not that many years since bobbies were climbing up trees to get cats down?
"I'm just astonished that the police were so unprepared considering a similar protest had just happened in the capital and this group has demonstrated in Liverpool before, so it should have been expected."
Solicitor Carole Clarke, of the Public Defenders Service, said: "It was a shambles. We wouldn't have known what was going on if we hadn't been listening to the radio.
"I was very late for work. Why did it take so long to sort it all out?"
Eve Rowe, 26, information officer from Upton, Wirral, was travelling to work at Wavertree Technology Park when she was caught up in yesterday's chaos.
She said: "I was stuck in the Birkenhead tunnel for two hours. It was horrendous. I can't believe they could not sort it out quicker."
Supt Alan Cooper, who was coordinating the operation, said the operation had been carried out in the safest possible way.
He said: "If I had sent someone up there who isn't trained who fell off or pushed off one of the protesters, I would be the subject of a criminal investigation.
"It was extremely slippery and icy this morning and the bridge was extremely dangerous for both the police and the protesters.
"Our officers are not all trained to go on roofs and so we had to pull together trained officers and our plans had to be health and safety assessed.
"We had a good talk with the men and told them that they had made their protest, and we did not agree with their means, but it had run its course now and we were going to come and get them off the roof.
"They said they were not going to put up a fight.
"I apologise to the public held up but the reason for that is the protesters not the police."
Peter Molloy, from Childwall, one of the protesters and Fathers 4 Justice Liverpool spokesman, said: "The family courts always find in favour of the mother and it is a complete injustice.
"I live just 400 yards away from my children and haven't seen them since September 2002.
"I realise we have probably annoyed thousands of people by making them late for work but we are at the end of our tether and had no options left."
* MERSEYSIDE Police last night charged five men with dangerous obstruction of a highway. They will appear before Liverpool magistrates on Monday.
They are David James Humphrey, 30, of Manor Road, Crosby; Stuart Peter Fisher, 38, of Dingle Lane, Dingle; Gary Anthony Newell, 44, of Appleyards Lane, Chester; Graham Ure-Wilson, 45, of Grosvenor Road, Wallasey; and Peter Michael Molloy, 33, of Hartsbourne Avenue, Childwall.