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Mon 21st Sep 2020 - Opinion Special: Another lockdown makes little sense

Another lockdown makes little sense by Mark Wingett

“We put this festival on, you b******s, with a lot of love! We worked for one year for you pigs! And you wanna break our walls down and you wanna destroy it? Well, you go to hell!” These were the words yelled down the microphone by Isle of Wight festival MC Rikki Farr in 1970, as a far from peaceful part of the circa 600,000 crowd was ready to riot and smash just about everything in its path. Farr’s passionate riposte has been playing in my head throughout the weekend, as another round of the government’s increasingly scattergun response to covid-19 was played out through leaked press briefings on what may happen next, and the hospitality sector, was again put blithely, and wrongly, forward as both scapegoat and sacrificial lamb. As Loungers chairman Alex Reilley tweeted: “It’s rather beginning to feel like there’s a Boris bus round the corner and hospitality is about to be thrown under it.” To which David Strauss, restaurant director at Rockfish, replied: “But it will just run over our leg so they can say we can continue to just limp along.” Many are already hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

Either way it is a long way from a few months ago month, when chancellor Rishi Sunak was waiting tables at Wagamama in the midst of promoting the government’s Eat Out To Help Out (EOTHO) scheme. It is an even longer journey back to when Sunak was proclaiming he would do “whatever it takes” to save jobs and businesses. EOTHO was a huge stimulus to the on-trade in August, and while sales have inevitably dropped back in September, it created welcome momentum for the sector. However, with the new Rule of Six restriction on socialising starting soon after the scheme finished and mounting concerns about infection rates and local lockdowns, the sector was already facing a big challenge to preserve guests’ optimism about safety and spending in the second half of September, and now, it seems, for the foreseeable future.

The sector has worked hard to be “covid secure”, fought tooth and nail for the chance to make a go of living off 40%-70% of last year’s trade. Again and again, it has highlighted its expertise in keeping people safe. The sector has done an amazing job over the last couple of months. The tunnel remained long and dark, but the train was at least picking up some speed. But now another kick in the teeth – and operators already dealing with local lockdown and curfews are sadly ahead here – looks to be on the cards. If you want the shorthand, hospitality, especially pubs, is, without any foundation, being pitted against hospitals and schools in a round of either/or, and being lined up to become a “covid circuit breaker”. Hugh Osmond tweeted: “Shutting down pubs when outbreaks are in care homes is like amputating a leg because you have lung cancer. Pointless, destructive, illogical.” A point picked up by his one-time business partner, Luke Johnson, who tweeted: “Pubs are a soft target – politicians, civil servants and SAGE scientists think they are for common people, not their highly educated chums.” Rob Pitcher, chief executive of Revolution Bars Group, said its Durham and Newcastle outlets were down 50.7% and 52.4% on the same day the previous week. Pitcher said: “The 10pm curfew is a killer. No one was out on the streets last night. It’s likely lots of socialising is taking (place) in houses so infections will continue to rise and therefore no relaxation of the measures for hospitality will be possible – as per Manchester, which is now seven weeks in.”

Pubs are being kicked around like a political football, an easy target, regardless of the lack of scientific data underpinning such a stance. On Friday 18 September on BBC R4, the health secretary Matt Hancock said “… we know that the vast majority of transmissions happen in social settings whether that’s in hospitality or in people’s own homes.” London Union’s Jonathan Downey retorted: “This is a LIE and he must not be allowed to get away with it. If he does, it will be used as an excuse to lockdown pubs and restaurants again. Public Health England’s (PHE) own most recent data is very clear on where transmissions are happening. 43% are catching it in care homes again. 26% from schools/universities. Only 4.6% in restaurants/food outlets.” We have played the game, we have done our bit to help the economy, we have had to cut jobs along the way. When you the government called, we answered, as we always do, to the best of our ability. There may have been some frustration at the start of the government’s handling of its response to the pandemic, for everyone this was new territory, but six months on it seems no lessons have been learnt. Where are the grown-up conversations, the long-term strategy, the leadership? That all these can be found in spades across our own sector, which has been battling through with the handbrake on, has meant that initial frustration has now turned to anger. And what if we lock-down again, how will that help defeat the virus? As the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges put it: “When we re-emerge from lockdown (again), why will it be different? Why will there not be a third, fourth or fifth wave? And how is this strategy even remotely sustainable?” As UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls says: “If we are to have further national lockdowns it is vital that we have transparent and grown-up debate on drivers of infection so we can identify and tackle causes through our interventions – clear that hospitality is not a vector of transmission or a source of infection.”

Perhaps Fuller’s chief executive Simon Emeny put it best: “Why close down a sector who a) Are regulated b) Have been successfully working with strict guidelines c) Have been and continue to work with government on track and trace? Pubs are not the problem, but can be part of the solution.” It doesn’t bare thinking about what will happen if we have to shut down for a long period again. Many jobs and businesses have been lost already, but another million jobs are at risk as a second lockdown is threatened. Or looked at another way, a generation of great general managers, sector entrepreneurs, investors, award-winning pub owners could easily be lost. And what support will the sector get if it does have to lock down again? Hancock said that “the last line of defence is full national action”. However, Nicholls pointed out: “He may say it is a last line of defence but with the North West and North East under curfew, two of our major cities heavily restricted and London under self-imposed restriction on commuting, we are getting there in name only. Main difference seems to be that this way you can decimate consumer confidence, significantly dent revenues and undermine jobs without having to say you have closed businesses and hence providing them with support they need. There are ways of doing this without damaging a sector.” Ominously over the weekend, the talk was of Dishy Rishi turning into Ruthless Rishi, and looking to raise taxes to pay for the support he has already dished out – he will need to balance the books. The fact that the government has shied away from any talk of extending the furlough scheme, or looked at a financial solution to the rent issue, brings up the question of how much more it has in the pot to spend. To lockdown the hospitality sector again without support would be illogical, short-sighted and disastrous.

According to The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), the economy faces a hit of £250 million a day from a second wave of covid-19 infections if partial lockdowns reverse the increase in people going to pubs and restaurants and returning to work. It warned that GDP could fall by between 3 and 5% in the last three months of the year compared with the third quarter. Douglas McWilliams, the CEBR’s deputy chairman, said that a second national lockdown could “knock the stuffing out of consumer and business confidence”, with an impact on investment, business closures and jobs. According to the CEBR, 10pm curfews, which have been imposed in some areas, are also a risk to the economy, particularly in leisure and entertainment. It said there was “a potential £2 billion annual cost if curfew measures reach London”. Understandably, the chancellor is reportedly resisting a full shutdown of the hospitality sector, but the government is still looking at imposing a further six months of “very difficult” lockdown restrictions. There is no denying it has a difficult balance to strike between the health of the nation and economy (and with it the long-term health of the nation), but it would surely get some continued support from the sector if it was clearer in the reasoning behind some of its decisions. Hopefully that may come later today.

Many in the sector have stepped forward over the past six months, to loudly fight for its survival. It is time for those who have stayed quiet to start joining the fray, it might be too late soon. Draft House founder Charlie McVeigh has urged everyone to write to their MP “to save hospitality and protect our democracy” ahead of a vote next week on the renewal of emergency powers to enforce lock-down measures without reference to parliament under the Coronavirus Act 2020. I urge you to do the same. The sector is facing another pivotal moment, in a long line of pivotal moments. In the classic western film, The Magnificent Seven, Steve McQueen’s character says: “All I’m saying is that sometimes you bend with the breeze, or you break.” The UK’s hospitality sector has been in the eye of a storm since the start of March, and has bent over backwards to adapt to everything that has been thrown at it, but at some point, and without further support and fair crack of the whip, it will break. As US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who sadly passed away last week, once said: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Mark Wingett is Propel insights editor

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