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Tue 13th Oct 2020 - Opinion Special: Tiers of a clown

Tiers of a clown by Mark Wingett

“I’m almost glad I don’t have any businesses left because I don’t know how I would deal with what’s going on – all the uncertainty and confusion, the total lack of common sense and strategy. The general feeling of WTF are they doing now and WTF will they do next?” So messaged Jonathan Downey, founder of Hospitality Union, former owner of game-changing venues such Milk & Honey and Dinerama, last night. That’s how bad it is – a more passionate and fierce advocate for this sector person than you could find has been pushed to admit he was glad he didn’t have businesses left to try a save through a mess that gets worse by the day. Of course, we knew the new tier system was coming, we’ve known for more than a week, because as always it was leaked out through the national press, no need to have the common courtesy to tell or discuss with the local councils, officials, or sector representatives, these new restrictions, which would severely impact them, or perhaps seek their input. Sadly, the government is too far down a rabbit hole of its own making, and it seems determined, for want of a better scapegoat, to pull the hospitality sector down into it.

Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, says he only found out Liverpool would be in tier three of England’s new system of covid-19 measures via a newspaper leak, and he is “still waiting” to see the scientific evidence behind the measures. Aren’t we all Steve, aren’t we all? It is now patently obvious, as it has been for some time, there’s no clear, specific scientific evidence for the lock-down of hospitality. In the latest Sage meeting minutes, it is spelt out in black and white: “… curfews likely to have a marginal impact”. You could argue that cases of covid-19 have gone up as footfall/sales across the sector have gone into reverse since the end of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme – with sales down about 30% even in areas of low infection, coupled with the further decline in consumer confidence generated by the rule of six and the ridiculous 10pm curfew. The attempts to paper over that fact – from both the politicians and the scientists – are becoming more ludicrous by the day, as anyone who saw the excruciating interview from yesterday between secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Oliver Dowden and Sky News’ Kay Burley, will testify. How can the government not see the 10pm curfew is counter-productive? As UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls pointed out: “Astonishing that the industry experts CGA has 24,000 northern licensed premises that could have provided insight for government policy, but the government decided to base decisions on the lock-down on a sample of 98.” Bringing in a simplified system to manage and understand covid-19 restrictions makes sense in theory, but it must be accompanied by evidence that explains clearly why certain businesses are the target of increased restrictions.

For some looking at the situation in north west, there will be a feeling of “but for the grace of god go I”, but judging from the latest update from Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, it could be that much of the country ends up in tier two or three of the new regulations over the coming weeks and months. Witty even admitted that the tier three measures may not go far enough. There are also reports London could move into tier two within days (with an announcement mooted for Thursday (15 October)), which is going to be pretty devastating for those operators based in central London if that happens and people can only visit hospitality venues from one household. If the capital does move up a tier, most major conurbations in the UK will have extra restrictions. The sector is again left in limbo, battling on from day to day, waiting for another measure to drop/to work around. How many times can a business afford to pivot its offer, invest in new kit to match restrictions? And that’s before you take into consideration the impact on people’s mental health. And if the number of cases don’t come down, what next? However, while we could have economic restrictions close to that we saw in the spring, there will be considerably less generous economic support. You have to wonder how sustainable this will be. As of last night, the Treasury was “still adamant” it won’t be going any further on business support for Merseyside beyond the national measures the chancellor announced last week – and those measures, for many, don’t go that far. As one chief executive said to me: “It will be enough for firms that have some cash, have been realistic with their projections and made hay during August and September, but for others it will be terminal I’m afraid.” As Nicholls says: “Large swathes of the country now classified as high risk and subject to extra restrictions – no household mixing and no non-essential travel on top of curfew and rule of six will see hospitality revenues decimated further but no financial help provided. Time for an urgent rethink.” Then there is the question of who is eligible? The new 67% hospitality “furlough” scheme does not kick in until 1 November so if businesses in relevant areas are closed next week, they will be required to pay 20% of wage costs with no revenue coming in. Of course, shutting the hospitality sector has magnified impacts on thousands of businesses in the supply chain and allied industries, none of which have anywhere close to adequate support packages to assist their survival. As Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, said this weekend: “If the government requires lock-downs, we require commensurate support.”

And for those in the very high risk/tier three category, there also comes the added conundrum of what constitutes a restaurant? Pubs and bars in these areas will be forced to close unless they can function as restaurants serving “substantial” meals when new local lock-down measures come in on Wednesday. The regulations refer to a “table meal, and the meal is such as might be expected to be served as the main midday or main evening meal, or as a main course at either such meal”. So, does that include breakfast or bottomless brunches? For those wet-led operators that have been at the back of the queue for support, no VAT cut for them to benefit from, this will be another hammer blow. But nobody in the sector, whether you are based in Toxteth, Truro or Tunbridge Wells, will be unaffected by what the prime minister announced yesterday. Whether their local area moves up a tier or stays where they are, consumer confidence in the sector will undoubtedly have taken another hit. You wonder how much of an impact the constant negative association the government is directly and indirectly placing the sector alongside the virus will have, not just in the short term, but in the medium to long term. Make no mistake, we are in this for the long-haul with many resigned to the fact that 2021 may have to be written off as well, if the government continues with its strategy of suppressing the virus and hoping for a vaccine to ride to the rescue.

Further job losses and business failures are inevitable, and these new restrictions will, sadly, speed up some tough and heart-breaking decisions. The vacuum of support for the sector that currently exists needs to be filled and fast, and we need to hope some long overdue support for the late-night sector may be around the corner. If there are some silver linings, and it may be hard to think of any at present, is that even the most compliant and pro-government national media and commentators are starting to question the government’s decisions, especially when it lacks evidence to back it up. Of course, they would be easier to support if there wasn’t the feeling that the prime minister and his cabinet wasn’t trying these measures with their fingers crossed behind their backs. We also have a huge supporter in the chancellor Rishi Sunak. Last night, published Sage minutes confirmed the circuit-breaker idea put forward was supported by the prime minister but vetoed by Sunak, aware of the importance of the sector to the economy’s recovery and the further damage another full lock-down would cause. That is not to say the circuit breaker idea is not off the table, and some speculate that it may be resurrected around the upcoming half-term break. There is even talk that Boris Johnson could look to introduce a week’s lock-down before Christmas to help reduce the R number and then let people spend the festive season with their families. Could anyone really stomach any “Boris saves Xmas” headlines? What the sector would like is just a period of time without any change in restrictions. If we are to have restrictions then let them be for a long enough period to at least allow some assessment that they may be working and to let operators get used to operating under them.

During the past week the government has antagonised a number of local authorities in the process. It has exacerbated all the resentment built up by ignoring local councils and turbo-charged it at exactly the moment when it needs local leaders on its side. It has also further lost the trust of this sector. It continues to overlook the level of rigour that the vast majority of hospitality venues have demonstrated, when implementing covid safety procedures. It is also ignoring the fact large parts of the country where hospitality remains “open” but does so with huge limiting factors, and is still in dire need of support. Many will be asking with businesses and livelihoods at stake if this is the best we can get or deserve? Rather than suppressing a virus, it is doing a better job at suppressing a sector and undermining whatever gains, marginal they may have been, that were gained post lock-down.

Frustrations that have been building are starting to bubble over. Hospitality is safe, secure and fully covid-compliant, for example Young’s – 2.7 million customers since 20 July and only nine confirmed cases – yet it continues to be unfairly targeted. Meanwhile after 10pm, people can pop into the supermarket, bulk purchase some cheap beer, not scan NHS Test & Trace (as supermarkets don’t have to display it), pop round a friend’s house and enjoy the rest of the evening not socially distancing. The government is happy to take VAT, levies, business rates, tax, beer duty, etc. but is quick to shut the industry down on a whim. When the industry is dead, communities are ruined and unemployment sky-rockets, who will the government blame then? And as many more people and, thankfully, MPs are starting to ask, where is the exit strategy? We can’t keep on this path of stop/start restrictions, or even the threat of them. We have to change the narrative. Hospitality needs to be looked at as a solution, not the problem. There were numerous celebratory programmes over the weekend for what would have been the 80th birthday for one of Liverpool’s most famous sons, John Lennon. Listening to some of them, I was tempted to pilfer his back catalogue for some inspiration for themes for this piece, with Gimme Some Truth, Help, and Power to the People, some obvious candidates. However, it was one his final songs, Borrowed Time, with its lyrics of “living on borrowed time, without a thought for tomorrow”, that seemed sadly most apt. It should be half-baked policies and poor-performing politicians living on borrowed time. But unless the government pulls off one of its infamous U-turns or, more importantly, works out a strategy that provides a proper balance between the health of the nation and health of the economy by using the right support packages, it will, sadly and scandalously, be hundreds if not thousands of our pubs, restaurants and bars facing last orders. Imagine that Boris, imagine that.
Mark Wingett is Propel insights editor

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