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On-trade calls grow in urgency for clarity on reopening

Published:  16 June, 2020

As the tough balancing act between protecting health and promoting the economy dominates national debate, UK on-trade operators are becoming increasingly vocal on the need for government clarity ahead of reopening.

Despite chancellor Rishi Sunak confirming that Boris Johnson has put in place a “comprehensive review” of the 2 metre rule, and further assurances that the government’s full Covid-19 review will be completed in “the coming weeks”, the on-trade faces the difficult challenge of planning a reopening in the face of much uncertainty, potentially including the 4 July reopening date itself.

The reduction of the 2 metre social distancing rule is of greatest concern, with estimates from on-trade operators and UK Hospitality suggesting that at 2 metres many businesses would have to run at a loss-making 30% of full, capacity, with a 1 metre distancing allowing for 70% or more of normal take, meaning the difference of life or death for businesses.

The flip side to this is a doubling of transmission of Covid-19 from 1.3% at 2 metres to 2.6% at 1 metres, remaining a low risk or representing a huge hike in risk, depending on increasingly polarised views of both public and government.

“What we and our industry urgently need is some clarity on the government’s intentions for the hospitality industry,” said Martin Williams, CEO, Gaucho and M Restaurants.

“While we fully appreciate the difficulty faced by those who are essentially balancing the risk to the health of the nation against the re-opening of the economy, the mixed messages and lack of clear guidance are undermining attempts to re-open across the restaurant industry.”

The severity of impact of the closure of the hospitality trade to the wider UK economy was recently thrown into sharp relief by the latest UK Hospitality tracker, which showed the hospitality sector has been responsible for some 32.7% of lost GDP for the country since the crisis began.

UK Hospitality’s chief executive Kate Nicholls has stressed that businesses need time to prepare, with clarity on guidelines and confirmation of when they can re-open, to enable them to do so safely.

Diana Rollan, group head of beverage at D&D London, was similarly clear on the challenge faced by businesses and to the wider economy.

“Tourism contributes £106bn to the British economy, supporting 2.6 million jobs, having a huge impact on the UK economy, and with these facts in mind we must urge government to take action and reduce current social distancing,” said Rollan.

“The hospitality industry has an urgent need for a proper reopening, where small sites are also given the chance to open to their customers, there is a need for the operators to plan ahead properly, implementing correct measures and this not being done in a last minute, rushed manner, where they could face catastrophic results.”

Rollan said that due to the 2 metre restriction and uncertainty over the broader recommendations of a review that government is unwilling to confirm will be finalised ahead of 4 July, only 17 of D&Ds 38 UK sites are planned to reopen on 4 July.

“In our case we have decided to open back up 17 of our sites where we are certain that we can follow current social distancing rules, but that also means that the rest of our sites will remain closed until the government reviews this rule,” she added, pointing out that countries such as France and Denmark have supported 1 metre distancing in the on-trade without similar controversy.

“This policy needs an urgent review, otherwise if the government fails to ease social distancing on time, hospitality in the UK will have a massive economic crash, with business forced to remain closed, and thousands of staff will face the loss of their jobs,” Rollan warned.

Vagabond's managing director Stephen Finch, who recently wrote a Soapbox piece on the 2 metre rule for Harpers, is even more direct than Rollan in his criticism.

“As with so much else during this pandemic and lockdown, the government, with the exception of Rishi Sunak, continues to waffle and lead from behind,” said Finch.

“By the time the government does render its verdict the population will have moved on and adopted their own standards, rendering the government’s guidance quite superfluous. I’m talking about 1 metre distancing - people are reading the numbers and they’re coming to their own conclusion that 2m is excessive.”  

Time out, says Finch, for the government to “get off the can and do something useful”, and it’s a position with which the majority in hospitality agree.