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Chris Losh: averting an on-trade apocalypse

Published:  17 March, 2020

This was the week that the Coronavirus got real. Ten days ago in the UK Covid-19 was largely the source of ironic fist-bumps and the odd cancelled tasting. Dying and panicking was what other people did. With a complacency that now seems barely credible, the government’s message at the end of February was, broadly, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Now airliners stand immobile, sport stadia empty, offices silent. The vulnerable are being recommended to self-isolate for literally months. There are more people in the loo-roll aisle of the supermarkets than all the bars and restaurants combined.

It’s surely just a matter of time before we follow France, Spain and Italy and the roads in our big cities fall eerily quiet.

No surprise against such a febrile backdrop that even successful hospitality businesses have seen their customer numbers fall off a cliff. Even last week managers were talking of reductions of 70%.

This week some venues had already shut up shop – partly to protect staff, partly because the numbers simply no longer made sense to stay open. Others were struggling on with a skeleton crew but no great optimism.

Then last night the government took a bad situation for the hospitality industry and made it even worse.

Of course, suggesting that the population avoid going out in the current climate makes sense. And few in hospitality would argue with the medical need to slow the spread of the pandemic.

But by making it a recommendation rather than a government-ordered lockdown, venues argued that they would not be able to claim the lost income against their insurance. The government’s somewhat woolly announcement had, they said, removed both any chance of earning and any chance of reparation.

“All restaurants and bars will be closed by the end of the week,” said Charlie Young, co-owner of wine bar/bistro group Vinoteca. “Boris has thrown us under a bus by not ordering the closures and therefore denying some insurance payouts, and not having a bailout plan for the industry.”

The insurance companies, however, begged to differ. According to the Association of British Insurers standard ‘business interruption cover’ will not cover lost sales due to a pandemic, whether the government orders people to stay away or not.

Lawyers will surely be rubbing their hands with glee at the impending legal battles, but the UK’s bars, hotels and restaurants are staring at a future that is, at best uncertain and at worst apocalyptic.

Two things, it seems, are certain: firstly, the measures announced in last week’s budget by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, abolishing business rates and freezing alcohol duty, now look almost comically inadequate.

And secondly, this is not an issue that the government can simply wash its hands of unless it’s happy to watch the wholesale destruction of an industry that, as Wetherspoons’ chairman Tim Martin pointed out, employs six million people and contributes £120bn a year in tax.

“Loans and corporation tax won’t be enough,” said Kate Nichols, head of UK Hospitality and a persistently vocal presence for the on-trade.

“We need big measures like France, America, Germany, Ireland, Denmark to fund staff who will otherwise lose their jobs.”

Barely 12 hours after Boris’s ‘stay away’ announcement, an online petition urging the government to ‘support the hospitality industry through the coronavirus crisis’ had already garnered close to 30,000 signatures.

It’s to be hoped those in Parliament listen.

After all, when Covid-19 is finally brought under control and life goes back to whatever is the new normal, it might be nice to have a couple of places that are still open where we can all go and celebrate.