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Johnson’s halfway house helps no-one

New restrictions to curb the surge in covid-19 cases are needed, but is it fair to point the finger at hospitality? By David Burrows.

“Whack a mole isn’t working so they decided to whack an entire industry.” London Union co-founder Jonathan Downey pulled no punches on Good Morning Britain yesterday as he launched a scathing attack on the government’s new restrictions designed to curb rising cases of covid-19. So has Boris botched things again or were his hands tied?

First (in case you’ve spent the last 24 hours underground) a quick recap on what’s new. Pubs and other venues in England must from tomorrow close by 10pm. For takeaways it’s the same cut off, though deliveries can continue later. Meanwhile, covid-secure guidelines will also become legal obligations, with businesses facing fines and closure if they breach the rules. Office workers have also been advised to work from home again.

And let’s not forget these restrictions could well be in place for at least the next six months. “I am sorry this will hurt many businesses just getting back on their feet, but we must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants,” the prime minister Boris Johnson said. Announcements in Scotland and Wales are expected imminently.

Once again the UK government has plumped for a halfway house that some argue will have little impact on coronavirus yet “devastate” the pub trade. Indeed, the move to restrict access to pubs smacks of the same dithering that preceded the March 23 lockdown – when pubs were allowed to stay open but people were advised not to visit them.

We are now exactly six months on. Hospitality businesses have put in place measures to curb the spread of the virus. Many have innovated and invested in order to keep customers safe and make a living from reduced capacity. No-one knew if this would work or not: restaurants and pubs have basically been involved in a “lab experiment into what works and what doesn’t”, noted one speaker at Footprint’s Responsible Business Recovery Forum (RBRF) in July. Some decided to remain closed.

Given the restrictions just put in place, the government clearly thinks the current experiment isn’t working. Johnson and his health secretary Matt Hancock have both been widely reported talking about evidence showing that spread happens “late at night after more alcohol” with the majority of transmissions “in social settings”, either at venues or in people’s homes.

The industry has been quick to challenge such claims. One set of data doing the rounds on Twitter was from Public Health England’s surveillance report from 18 September. This showed that of the 729 new acute respiratory incidents just 34 (5%) were from food outlet or restaurant settings while 313 (43%) were in care homes and 193 (26%) in educational settings, including schools and universities.

Look at that data and you have to question what on earth the government is doing. Why is hospitality the scapegoat? This is an administration that was hell-bent on reopening the economy – too early according to some – after the first lockdown so why wouldn’t it follow its own agency’s data if there were a chance of keeping businesses open?

Well, the PHE data may not tell the full picture, as Professor Philip Nolan, president at Maynooth University in Ireland explained in a series of tweets yesterday. It is, he wrote, “misreading and misinterpreting the data on outbreaks and clusters”. He also admitted this was “really difficult” for a hospitality industry that has “worked very hard to minimise the risks of transmission”.

But does the government see it this way? After incentives to get the industry back up and running and the public out and about – principally through the novel and largely successful “eat out to help out scheme” launched by the chancellor Rishi Sunak – there is now the threat of fines and closures as the covid-secure guidelines for businesses become “legal obligations”.

This heavy-handed approach also suggests the industry was slacking. Perhaps it has a point: from experience there is a mixed bag of approaches to ensure sites are “covid-safe”. Yet this is hardly surprising given the ambiguity of the guidance: it is too woolly in parts, leaving too much for businesses to decide”, said one industry health and safety expert at Footprint’s RBRF.

Still, the notion will persist that drinking and dining out has once again become dangerous – or at least after 10pm. The drunken public is to blame, so too the hospitality businesses that have failed to keep people safe. This is classic Cummings (Dominic, the PM’s top advisor); his bid to deflect attention from the government’s hopeless test and tracing system.

Indeed, Sunak’s summer of carrots and socialising seems a distant memory as we enter autumn faced with the poor-sighted Cummings brandishing a big stick. The mole isn’t done with his whacking yet though.