Industry furious over latest government fudge

Harsh new covid restrictions have come as another blow to hospitality businesses, but there is little confidence they will work. David Burrows reports.

“[Hopefully] more and more people will be bold enough to come out because our industry desperately needs people to start coming out. That will make us so happy.” So said one speaker at July’s Responsible Business Recovery Forum.

And people did come out.

That month, hospitality businesses across the UK reopened their doors after a painful period under lockdown. Things remained perilous. Many had invested heavily in new products and protocols (supported by government-backed loans and grants) to keep customers “covid safe”. They were also operating at much-reduced capacities. Still, thanks to the UK government’s unique “eat out to help” discount scheme and a message for workers to head back to the office, glasses were, by and large, half full rather than half empty.

But was that such a good idea? Hindsight is wonderful thing, but this is the question now being asked of ministers as covid-19 cases surge again and businesses are being asked to close up, adhere to strict curfews or adapt to another confusing set of restrictions and guidelines. The finger of blame has been pointed at hospitality, which was already on a covid cliff edge as the furlough scheme wound up. Jobs throughout the sector’s supply chain undoubtedly hang in the balance.

Industry leaders are outraged. Some have threatened legal action. They want proof – hard evidence – that the latest restrictions are justified on the basis that hospitality venues are a significant source of transmission. "I think they [hospitality] do want to see a much more evidence-based approach – the government needs to show its workings,” CBI chief Carolyn Fairburn told BBC's Today programme.

Full transparency would certainly help, but the data is poor. Scotland’s chief scientists have described how the uptick in cases aligns with the reopening of hospitality. There are caveats, they said:It is not a measure of causation […]. However it does highlight that people who have been infected have been in hospitality settings where they could have spread the virus to others.”

A virus that hops between people will thrive in social situations but what we don’t know is how effective the rigorous scrubbing, plastic screens and staff PPE’d to the max have been. Some businesses are undoubtedly gold-plating the government’s guidance (my local café has just stopped letting customers sit inside, despite there being no ministerial moves to make them). Others have let things slide – and not just in foodservice.

Enter my local supermarket a few weeks ago and you couldn’t get in the door without tripping over the hand sanitiser and wipes. Recently, they were moved out of the way – they’re still pretty obvious but very, very few people now use them on entry or departure. Grocers can’t force people to wash their hands on entry (and there has been a doubling of violence towards staff, with social distancing rules and face coverings causing more flashpoints), but as everyone kicked back during the summer the virus has kicked on.

Which leaves us staring another national lockdown in the face. We don’t know exactly where and in what settings this virus spreads. It is after all a social mover. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have been convinced. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor and brains behind eat out to help out, is reportedly less so.

This perhaps explains the latest dithering over lockdowns and restrictions and new rules that have all the appearance of a deliberate fudge. For the Liverpool City Region rated as “very high” risk under the new three tier system, bars and pubs will have to close unless alcohol is “served for consumption on the premises as part of a table meal, and the meal is such as might be expected to be served as the main midday or main evening meal, or as a main course at either such meal”. This seems like an open invitation for “wet” pubs to order in a batch of microwaveable meals and carry on trading, while lawyers tie themselves in knots over the definition of a main course.

At the outset of the crisis the government wobbled for a week or two before shutting everything down. Last month, it did the same with its light touch interventions, including the 10pm curfew. The latest restrictions, announced on Monday, have tried to strike a balance. The government is “using up the credit [it has] in terms of allowing people to mix in ways which … result in economic activity,” Dr Lance Turtle, from the University of Liverpool Institute of Infection and Global Health, noted on the Today programme on Monday.

On Tuesday this week, news emerged that the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) advised the government three weeks ago that it should introduce immediate, harsh national restrictions to control the spread of the virus. The experts also reinforced just how terrible the test-and-trace system is. In this case, the industry’s fury with the government is understandable. Instead of ministers taking the rap, hospitality (and the public) have. But did we expect anything else?

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