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Wed 16th Dec 2020 - Opinion Special: Capital punishment

Capital punishment by Mark Wingett

It is one of the most famous goal celebrations in Premier League history. Attention-grabbing, enfant terrible, Italian striker Mario Balotelli had just scored the first goal for the blue half of Manchester in the city’s derby. He stopped, lifted his shirt to reveal the question: “Why always me?” During the past nine months, the UK’s hospitality sector has increasingly had cause to ask the same question. It has found itself too easily cast by the government and a band of scientists as a scapegoat, a political tool to be used at their whim and without any justification in their continued haphazard attempts to fight the spread of the virus. “Follow the science”, an early mantra of Boris Johnson et al, has fallen by the wayside, as scientific evidence behind why hospitality is being repeatedly kicked is time and again proved to be flimsy at best, non-existent at worst. We did what we were told. We followed measures we had agreed with the government on, we provided well-policed, heavily regulated, covid-secure hospitality venues. What we have got back has been insulting. They have turned their back. Now after a month’s lockdown, and only 11 days of reduced trading, and with just 24 hours’ notice, pubs and restaurants in London are taking the bullet for a rise in cases. For many, sadly, it will be a case of “you can stop shooting, lads, we’re already dead”.

A reminder that the government is shutting London's pubs, restaurants and theatres on the basis of a rise in cases that started during lockdown when London's pubs, restaurants and theatres were shut. But they are not alone in taking steps that have no evidence to back them up. In the Netherlands, the hospitality sector has been closed since 14 October and infections have been rising there – dramatically in the past two weeks. In Germany, restaurants have been closed since 2 November and, again, infections have continued to rise and the country is going into a stricter lockdown from tomorrow (16 December). As David Paton, professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School, tweeted recently: “There’s a bit of a pattern here: positive tests go up so politicians impose unprecedented, draconian and damaging restrictions lacking evidence of effectiveness. The restrictions don’t work so impose even more draconian, evidence-free restrictions.” Then there is the cost involved. As Charlie Gilkes, founder of Inception Group, tweeted: “24 hours’ notice to close after only 13 days, having spent a fortune getting reopened for Xmas trading after lockdown. Devastating.” While the government started off the first lockdown with good intentions and substantive support, the past few months has seen that tap pretty much turned off. As Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality chief executive said: “Government support has been substantive and we are grateful for it but it was designed to get us to September and no further. The point is that it is now no longer sufficient to get us through a second lockdown and new tier restrictions – which have seen revenues drop to between minus 75% and minus 95%.” It hasn’t taken long for the ‘whatever it takes’ mantra from chancellor Rishi Sunak to come back to haunt him. As Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail this week: “In what parallel universe does forcing the hospitality sector to close during its busiest time of the year ‘protect the economy?’” For many, it seems the government has given up any pretence that science or data backs closing hospitality.

And these restrictions come in as operators look next door or across the road to find their retail counterparts are still trading. Safe and regulated hospitality is forced to close once again while most retailers with very limited covid measures, largely unregulated, remain open. As Stonegate chairman Ian Payne asked: “How can any sane individual justify keeping central London retail open when hospitality has to shut? We have all seen the crowds in Oxford Street at the weekend. This is sheer madness.” The lack of cases in hospitality settings continues to highlight how good the sector is at looking after people, although no one should be surprised by that, it also underlines the fact how hollow the attempts to justify the continued round of restrictions it has to deal with are. It just adds to the fear that those in charge of the country haven’t a clue about what they are doing. Or in the prime minister’s case, working on the next catastrophe set to befall the sector and the country, Brexit. The lack of evidence or a coherent plan, aside from winging it until the vaccine has been rolled out, was again highlighted this weekend when Sacha Lord, night-time adviser for Greater Manchester and co-founder of Parklife and The Warehouse Project, received a government letter in response to his judicial review on the tier system. Lord tweeted he had received a response from the government, it read: “We’ve had a response from the government. Legal team will update me shortly, but a couple of stand-outs: Sage confirmed the original tier system wasn’t right. They also said they have carried out an Equality Impact Assessment report, but have decided not to share it. I can also confirm that the letter shows no evidence in support of the requirement to close wet pubs/the restriction on serving alcohol unless it’s with a main meal. The report shows Sage never even mentioned a meal restriction. A policy, not scientific decision.”

And while the whole of the hospitality sector is under the cosh, some parts of it have been picked on more than others. The demonisation of the wet-led pub has been disgraceful and, sadly, predictable. As Draft House founder and The Breakfast Club chairman Charlie McVeigh said: “The tragedy for the pub sector is it seems to be almost a moral point. The government seems to think because they make the majority of their sales from alcohol they are not worth saving, and so let’s just let them all go bust. I think that is utterly, utterly pathetic as far as thinking goes, it’s borderline evil. And I don’t understand why that is the case. It is wrong for the government to pick winners. State aid legislation is designed, in some senses, to stop government picking winners. You can’t put a billion pounds into British Steel and not put a billion into another steel company. On some kind of, in my view, entirely spurious moral grounds, we have just decided the ownership of an entire sector is going to go under the bus and it is nothing to do with it not being viable, it is perfectly viable, it’s just to do with the fact they don’t like people making money from selling alcohol. That can be the only logic. To me that is horrendously wrong.” Sadly, communities up and down the country are soon going to find out what it will be like to lose their local pub/social hub/community rally point for good. They can thank Boris for that. That wet-led pubs received a rushed, insulting £1,000 per pub scrap of support, only underlines the government’s attitude to the sector and, perhaps more alarmingly, throws up the question of how much money the government has left to offer any kind of substantial support. The blood boils to hear Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng stand up in parliament this week when an opposition MP questioned the support for pubs in the Winter Plan and stated that many would not survive the winter, to say he doesn’t recognise that argument, and that the government is in constant dialogue with the industry and publicans are grateful for the support. What world are they living in? They need get out and ask publicans in their constituency: how much debt they have, how many staff they have lost and what their profit is compared with last year? Saying they know “how hard it is”, are just empty words, as more livelihoods are lost.

The one bright spot in another dark week for the sector may come with the possibility of parts of the country, such as Greater Manchester and Bristol moving down to tier two, although even here the government is seemingly procrastinating for another 24 hours. It has got to a point where we are so cowed and battle weary as a sector, that even this is seen as a small victory, but it is one the operators of the region deserve. Since March, Greater Manchester has only been in restrictions equivalent to tier one for a total of three weeks. This means that leisure businesses in Manchester have missed out on Christmas trade, Bank Holidays, Pride celebrations, Halloween and more. Even then, 48 hours’ notice isn’t enough for a business to reopen, re-order, re-stock, re-staff and accept bookings. Just another example of hospitality not being understood. It continues to be an operational nightmare for operators. And let’s get one thing straight, if hospitality was proved to be where covid-19 is spread, the sector would do the right thing because making sure people are safe is part of the deal of working in this industry. As one operator told me: “I’m 100% behind saving lives, if closing pubs helps then I will do it gladly, but should we be at risk of losing our livelihood, homes and businesses? For what? To allow families to mix, gyms to open, shops to trade, I can’t think of anybody else being penalised, please explain.”

The government should be under no illusions that putting the capital into tier three will be the final hammer blow for many of the hospitality business and those in the wider ecosystem it supports. They should also be aware of the damage the constant opening and closing, and chopping and changing, is doing to the mental health of those who live and breathe the sector, and their long-term futures. Unsurprisingly, hospitality was the worst-hit sector as the UK’s unemployment rate rose to 4.9% in the three months to October. The sector accounted for a third of the job losses, followed by retail. Economists said the huge jump in job losses was due to the expected end to the government’s furlough scheme, which has protected millions of jobs during the pandemic. Nicholls said: “This is why it is important the government supports hospitality businesses now – if these businesses remain solvent and viable then hospitality is the fastest at creating new jobs once restrictions lift and recovery starts.” When you break down the unemployed by age, it’s the younger cohort who have seen the worst impacts – and they eat and drink out more than other cohorts. The support, as if this needs to be said, needs to be proportionate.” Dave Strauss, restaurant director at Rockfish, added: “I’ve got a mate that runs a restaurant that would have taken £250,000 this week and a mate that owns one that would take about £10,000. Both will get £3,000 from the government I think.” The repayment of grant support by many of the leading supermarket chains has led for calls for these funds to be redistributed, in some part, to the hospitality sector, perhaps that could be beefed up by leveraging more tax from those that will see their profits increase over the coming weeks, such as Amazon, Netflix and Deliveroo, who pay little or no tax and are not significant employers. Excuse me for dreaming a little bit there.

We are all versed, by now, in the fact that closing pubs, bars and restaurants simply drives social interaction into private homes where infections occur. So why doesn’t the government realise that a five-day family and friends Christmas free-for-all, will leave instigating a further national lockdown as the only alternative? Perhaps talk of a new strain of the virus, they casually slipped into the latest update, will allow them to U-turn on another ill-thought-out measure, but another fudge job is probably what we will end up with. Either lock down the whole country and provide proper financial support (like Germany and France) to businesses or target sources of actual covid transmissions. As Loungers chairman Alex Reilley tweeted: “Hospitality has done all it can, at whatever cost, to comply with whatever the government has required us to do. The way we’re being treated is sickening – there’s no respect, just hollow words of sympathy and support amounts to spare change being chucked on the ground at our feet. Hospitality politely asking for help simply isn’t working – the government has realised they can just simply ignore us.” How long before some in the industry go rogue and rebel against the restrictions? As restaurant consultant and boss of the Northern Restaurant and Bar exhibition, Thom Hetherington said: “Like Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief executive, after the Icelandic volcano… UK government had grounded all flights and were too cautious to permit a restart. Eventually, Willie sent his planes up anyway and said the government would have to ‘shoot them out of the skies’. They didn't.”

It does feel like we are shouting/screaming into the void, left to crawl over broken glass to survive through to next spring. But who has the resources to survive a long, drawn-out recovery? Who thinks you can survive with £3,000 per month compensation? Yes, we need to continue to lobby and stay together, but the sector is angry and scared, and while a petition for a hospitality minister will hopefully prove fruitful in the long term, the industry needs significant help now, not next month. Something it can cling onto, or at least an outlet for all the pent-up frustration can be channelled toward. Perhaps the government, alongside much needed support, could give out more details of the vaccine rollout so we can judge how long restrictions may need to be in place? This will help confidence, planning and compliance. As one commentator said on Twitter: “If it’s six to eight weeks, people may accept it. If it’s six to eight months, they probably won’t.” At some point this festive season, the Great Escape, that iconic World War II war film, will get its annual airing. The escape tunnels Tom, Dick and Harry will be built and prisoners of war will talk about escaping and meeting up in London at their favourite restaurant or pub. Sadly, only a handful get that far. If we don’t want to see a repeat for the hospitality sector, we will need a bigger tunnel and Boris, Rishi and co to stop flailing around and come up with a better plan because, at the moment, they are doing a depressingly fine job of foiling any escape the majority of the industry will be able to make. Good luck everyone.
Mark Wingett is Propel insights editor

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