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Fri 21st Aug 2020 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The politics game, consumer confidence is growing in the sector but operators need to guard against complacency, labour costs and don’t just leave us with memories
Authors: Paul Chase, Gary Goodman, Richard Hartley and Glynn Davis

The politics game by Paul Chase

I was tempted to title this article “Public Health England (PHE) – my part in its downfall” (apologies to Spike Milligan). This is because my previous article concluded with the statement “PHE must go” and now it has, or at least its demise has been announced. We now know the way in which PHE recorded covid deaths included anyone who had previously tested positive for the virus – even if they had recovered and died months later of a heart attack or been run over by a bus. This has exaggerated the total number of deaths to date by about 12%, or almost 5,500. 

The purpose of this article is to tease out an understanding of how institutional failings like this can impact on government policy in a fast-moving health crisis. I think any government would have found it difficult to deal with this pandemic. And while there are no easy jobs in government, getting the health brief is a particularly poisoned chalice at present. Government has claimed throughout this crisis it is guided by the science and clearly placed trust in PHE to provide it with objective, real-time statistical data upon which it could base its policy decisions. For any government, “we are guided by the science” will be used to provide cover for political decisions because so much of politics is a blame game, and politicians of any party will always seek to dodge bullets.

But those who aren’t in a position to dodge the bullets are ordinary people who have lost family members, whose lives have been disrupted and freedoms taken away, and whose businesses have been shut down by government decree. If government decided to lock-down too early or to release lock-down too late because it was bamboozled by statistics that were constructed in such a way as to exaggerate the problem, then this distorts political decision-making and has real effects on peoples’ lives, jobs and businesses. I believe this is exactly what has happened.

If PHE’s flawed counting method had not been noticed, the eventual death toll in England would have been 290,000 if the follow-up of every test-positive patient was of long enough duration (Ref: Ote and Heneghan, Oxford Centre for Evidence-based Medicine). Was this simply a mistake? I don’t think so. So-called “public health” has form for this sort of deliberate problem inflation. Remember “1.2 million hospital admissions a year are alcohol-related”? And then, whoops, it turned out to be about 300,000. Remember “The cost of alcohol-related harm to the taxpayer is £20bn a year”? And then the actual cost to the taxpayer was nearer £3.5bn (Ref: Snowdon and Duffy). 

Problem inflation is how “public health” keeps the populace alarmed and clamorous to be led to safety. The long-term goal of public health ideologues is not the gradual improvement of the health of the public, but to create an exaggerated perception of risk so public health becomes a new method of governing society and constraining capitalism. Imagine how much sooner we might have reopened pubs, bars, and restaurants if the deaths from covid-19 had been counted properly from the beginning.

The 12% exaggeration of the overall number is not the only factor here. As the actual death rate falls, the percentage of total deaths constituted by including all those who tested positive but died more than 28 days later increases exponentially. For example, between 18 July and 24 July the official death toll in England was 442. But count deaths in the way Wales and Scotland do and the number falls to 111 – a fall not of 12% but of 75%! The mortality rate from covid-19 was a key number in determining how quickly the government could enact its roadmap for reopening the economy. So this was not just a statistical blip of little consequence, but a major blunder that has directly impacted on the hospitality industry and all those sectors of it that have remained closed. Deaths in England from covid-19 are now down to single figures and there is no excuse for keeping nightclubs closed – unless we really want to waste police time chasing up and down motorways trying to find and stop illegal raves. 

Letting covid-19 infect the whole population without doing anything to mitigate the spread or guard the old and vulnerable would have been morally unacceptable. The methods required to completely suppress covid-19 globally are equally morally unacceptable, particularly in a democracy. As such, there is no solution – only trade-offs between public health and economic health. It is the job of politicians to find those trade-offs and that is an extremely difficult task at the best of times. But if political decisions are distorted because of false or misleading information from a politicised public health establishment then it becomes well-nigh impossible for the politicians to get this right.

I hope axing PHE and creating a new National Institute for Health Protection to focus on planning for the control of this and future epidemics is more than just an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs. The government needs to lead us towards living with this virus, not hiding away from it, and that task cannot be facilitated by a public health culture bent on exaggerating risk. Time to clean the stable.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health. View his other articles in the series – the risk game and the numbers game 

Consumer confidence is growing in the sector but operators need to guard against complacency by Gary Goodman

Yumpingo launched the We Hear You initiative on 4 July, together with CGA and UKHospitality, to support the hospitality sector and the government in reopening the sector safely and with minimal logistical or data challenges. The initiative now covers 750 venues and has gathered almost 65,000 responses. The analysis and insight below covers the period between 4 July and 16 August – it also includes data around the effect of Eat Out To Help Out (EOTHO).
 
We Hear You insight: 
Although people are becoming less nervous about going out, hygiene, steps of service and communication of safety protocols remain crucial as there are still people going out for the first time needing reassurance. 

Vigilance in following safety protocols is seen as declining. High satisfaction with covid-19 safety precautions has dropped over the six weeks (79% down to 58%). This looks to have negatively impacted guest satisfaction as measured by net promoter scores (NPS). The likelihood to recommend a venue has dropped 32 points over six weeks (78% to 46%). 

The report notes clear safety measures are a driver for 79% of diners and 83% of those over 55-years-old. Only a few people (8%) believed safety restrictions could be lessened, so safety is still very much top-of-mind for customers and operators can't afford to relax on this.

How are you ensuring managers and servers in week seven have the same diligence as week one? This is especially important because first-time visitors made up 37% of the total last week.

EOTHO insight:
I believe EOTHO further supports the importance of following safety protocols because an absence of standards leads to lower NPS. 

Safety: EOTHO may have driven footfall, but customers were notably less satisfied with covid-19 safety measures compared to non-EOTHO days. Every guest experience must be treated as an opportunity to win back consumers who can share their positivity with friends, family, and across social platforms. (Come on in, the water’s fine!) The increased volume produced by EOTHO is great for the sales line but will negatively impact long-term brand health unless operators follow an effective safety regime around queuing, spacing of tables, cleaning processes etc – even though sales volume have increased enormously. 

Speed: Lower NPS scores on Monday to Wednesday compared with Thursday to Sunday, is not just solely related to consumer views on covid-related safety measures. Complaints about “speed of service” were 50% higher on Monday to Wednesday versus Thursday to Sunday, indicating foodservice outlets were overwhelmed by the increase in traffic, possibly leading to them being overbooked and understaffed.

Loyalty: EOTHO is driving large amounts of increased volume on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays so the key opportunity is to converting these visitors into more valuable and frequent users by using targeted invitations such as “happy hour” or brunch.

Here are Yumpingo’s top tips for how to best manage your operations during the EOTHO days: 
1. Increase your staffing.
2. Encourage bookings in advance and/or manage queues with appropriate spacing. 
3. Facilitate outside check-ins and web access to the menu via a QR code to expedite customer seating, ordering, or to even advance ordering.
4. Ensure your team is fully trained on safety procedures on every shift as if it were the first day of opening because for some guests it is their first day back. There can be no complacency or declining adherence to standards.
5. Clearly mark and explain safety measures to guests.
6. Use QR codes for ordering, paying, and reviewing if possible.
7. Maintain high standards of hygiene with staff, tables, floors and toilets.
8. Consider running a smaller easier-to-execute menu to facilitate kitchen operation.

To access the report click here. To join the We Hear You initiative click here or email wehearyou@yumpingo.com 
Gary Goodman is founder and chief executive of Yumpingo
Yumpingo is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

Labour costs by Richard Hartley

At S4labour, we have conducted a full review of labour costs for July since the industry reopened. This data only includes sites for days that were open from 4 July.

In the first seven days after lock-down the industry was running at an average labour cost of 65.9%. Sales were low and staff were starting back to work, getting used to new ways of working and doing their best to give customers reassurance they were operating in a safe manner. This will have left almost every operator making losses.

As the weeks have progressed this ratio has improved. Week two ran at 53.8% and week three 43.1%, with the final week in July running at 41.1%. This labour ratio compares with a ratio of 30.9% for the same period last year and therefore reduces industry profitability by a full 10% against the same period last year.

There are several causes for this:

1. Lower sales
The lower sales levels have caused an increase in the labour ratio of a massive 6%. This shows how vital incremental sales are to the industry and over time operators will need to rebase their rotas if sales remain at a lower level.

2. A less productive business
Business have become less productive because of more outside service, more at-table service and covid measures on cleaning and staff distancing, all of which have led to a decrease in productivity that we estimate to be 10% to 15% – and therefore accounts for a 3% increase in labour ratio.

3. VAT
Operators have taken different approaches with how to treat the reduction in VAT. For any that have chosen to not pass on the price reduction to customers this will have helped them to offset some of the other challenges. This will see an increase in productivity, as measured by sales per labour hour, of circa 10%.

4. Sales uncertainty and volatility
When sales are uncertain and more volatile then typically more of the team are scheduled to cover sales that might not materialise. Slack, a measure of non-productive hours as measured by S4labour, has increased by 5%.

5. Staff getting back up to speed and training
The industry has faced the double challenge of having both to re-train and re-energise staff as well as train new staff, and this will have undoubtedly contributed to the additional cost in July. While the government have offered to pay for training through furlough, fewer than 50% of businesses are using this facility. This is in part due to the challenge of determining what is, and what is not, training in the way we run our industry.

To summarise therefore the increase in labour ratio is driven as follows:
Sales decline: 6%
Productivity decline: 3%
VAT change: minus 2%
Sales uncertainty: 1.5%
Staff training:1.5%
Total: 10%

For the hospitality industry the last 10% to 20% of sales produces all of the profit, and so with the sales levels in July it will be hard for operators to make money. The added increases in labour will make that even harder. The change in consumer behaviour may well be with us for some time and those who adjust their labour model quickly and smartly will win the confidence of the customer, and therefore grow sales, and also enable them to manage costs appropriately through this very challenging time.
Richard Hartley is chief product officer of S4labour 
S4labour is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

Don’t just leave us with memories by Glynn Davis

Long-standing Covent Garden bar the Roadhouse has become the latest casualty of covid-19 with the announcement it will not be opening again. The toll of dealing with the current uncertainly around late-night London has meant its owners sadly do not regard the operation as viable.

The statement on its website reads: “It is the end of an era. An incredible amount of people have enjoyed being part of the Roadhouse journey, some great times and some great stories will be remembered by all those who have been involved along the way.” 

Although I was far from a regular it was a memorable venue for me as I met my future wife in the basement bar. As the effects of covid-19 rip through the hospitality industry the business casualties are getting ever closer to home for a growing number of people – whether they are the owners of outlets or in my case a mere customer.

For those people who have lived in London for meaningful chunks of their life it is particularly harsh because you can see the things that have helped create your memories start to fall away. It was the same with The Ledbury restaurant, which announced its permanent closure as lock-down eased. This was the venue I had my annual London Christmas meal with my mother in December and it was the venue I took my wife-to-be and mother out for a meal after they had met for the first time.

Other venues that have contributed to the social richness of my time in the capital are also clinging on for dear life. When I worked in the City the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market and Dirty Dick’s near Liverpool Street station were regular spots for a pint or two of Young’s bitter at lunchtime and evening. Both of these pubs are now doing a mere 10% of the pre-crisis level of sales, according to Young’s chief executive Patrick Dardis.

There is no way this is viable on an ongoing basis but Dardis – like other pub company bosses in London – is valiantly keeping such venues open because he wants to help breathe life into central London and the City and not fuel the continuation of what feels rather like a ghost town. The fundamental problem is central London simply has scant amount of people in it right now. 

Although tourists are significantly down this is largely understandable. Most people here in the UK have abandoned the idea of overseas holidays this year and so we can hardly expect visitors from abroad to flock to London. The plan, however, for most people is probably to resume their foreign jaunts next year. That looks like some normality on the horizon.

Another matter entirely, and the real structural issue for leisure and hospitality businesses in the capital, is people working from home. Last week Schroders announced its employees do not have to return to its office in the City full-time after covid-19 passes. This followed news others including PwC and Lloyd’s of London, along with various tech firms, are working on rotas for office working in the capital.

A death spiral is taking hold whereby workers find little of attraction in returning to the office because many of the services around them including restaurants, bars, gyms and coffee shops are not open. This is clearly because there are too few people around to support their reopening! As time goes by the worry is this trend becomes increasingly powerful as opposed to there being a gradual increase in the numbers of people returning to the office. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan played an incredibly successful role in convincing people to avoid the London transport system as covid-19 raged in the capital but as things have eased he has failed to reverse this mindset and make much effort to encourage the use of public transport. Not surprisingly, this continues to be a major drag on people returning to work in central London. 

Greater vocal promotion of returning to work should have been propagated by the mayor and his team who have been conspicuous by their absence for much of the pandemic. It is not too late but more needs to be done as soon as possible before further businesses disappear and all we are left with are memories of once thriving pubs, bars and restaurants.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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