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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Mon 8th Feb 2021 - Opinion Special: Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before by Mark Wingett

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! It was only at the end of last month, that I wrote “it is going to be a long five weeks ahead, but maybe for that period we need to cut out the white noise of speculation, government leaks and U-turns, and keep our eyes on the prize”. Of course, I didn’t think for one minute the endless kite-flying of possible outcomes/measures would cease but I was prepared not to get caught up in it. Only two dates mattered, the roadmap to lifting restrictions on 22 February and the support being provided to get the sector there and beyond on 3 March. Everything else should have been white noise. But then, on Saturday morning – and why is it always a weekend that these leaks appear, when many are taking a mental break from the strain of keeping a business afloat? – the corrosive drip, drip of possible restrictions on the sector went up a notch. The Telegraph announced on its front page – showing they knew how emotive the story would be – the government was considering allowing pubs to reopen but, in doing so, they would be banned from serving alcohol. You couldn’t make it up, but they did and it wasn’t a joke, not even a bad one. As serial sector investor Hugh Osmond quipped: “Further proposals from Sage: swimming pools will reopen without water; cinemas without films; stadiums without matches; shops without merchandise; airports without planes; schools without teachers.”

Less than 12 hours later and the government was already distancing itself from the story. A senior government source told the Daily Mail that an alcohol ban in pubs was not on the cards. They said: “We are not going to open pubs that can’t sell booze. What would be the point of that?” So why put forward the idea in the first place? And let’s get one thing right, this idea was floated to industry representatives last week – this option was placed on the table. I hope it got a very quick and robust push back from all concerned and wasn’t even remotely considered as workable. These are desperate and unusual times and, as such, would it be natural for the restaurant side of the industry to maybe take at least a moment to think “well… perhaps we could make that work?”. I still like to think we are all in this together. The proposed measure again had the fingerprints of messrs Hancock, Gove and Witty on it, again reaffirming the notion the health lobby was taking this unprecedented time to push through its agenda by stealth. It is also worrying this proposal goes further than any we have seen over the past 12 months – pre-vaccine. The Telegraph story also said that during meetings of the government’s tourism and hospitality recovery groups, ministers highlighted Scotland’s indoor alcohol ban in October as a possible way forward. And I would highlight the devastating impact that had on the sector north of the border.

Was the story leaked by the government? Well, it has a history doesn’t it? As did it have a more cynical reason behind it. As Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, tweeted: “Allowing pubs to reopen without alcohol is a ploy to withdraw financial support. Now is not the time to be withdrawing, they need to be extending: extension of VAT reduction and business rates relief. We urgently need clarity, not leaked news.” I like to think the leak was a calculated move by a pub operator, a brave but clever play, knowing it would get the immediate backlash that it did. The same morning, The Sun put up a few more kites for the government, flagging up a possible simplification of the rules around the sector reopening – including the scrapping of the nonsensical 10pm curfew, that outdoor drinking and eating will be allowed first, and that what constitutes a “substantial meal” would be much more clearly defined or even scrapped. It is clear that during the next two weeks, up until the prime minister sets out his roadmap to reopening, more kites will be let loose. A tired sector needs to stick together and be clear on what restrictions (if any) it can live with for possibly three months, before it is hoped it is opened up completely. How much is the sector willing to compromise on restrictions that could be in place indefinitely. Once the health lobby has got its foot in the door, it will be very hard to push it back out.

More worrying in my opinion was, again, a number of the national media still falling back on preconceived lines about the sector that have long been disputed and indeed proven to be incorrect. In the same said Telegraph story, there was a claim of “chaotic scenes” when pubs reopened last summer following the first lockdown. Yes, there were, sadly, a tiny number of venues that failed to manage risks but most hospitality outlets implemented appropriate and well-managed controls, especially for social distancing. Said “chaotic scenes” were mostly the creation of the ill-thought-out 10pm curfew, leading to people all leaving well-regulated and safe hospitality venues and spilling into the streets and onto public transport at the same time. And spare me the connection to cases rising around the Eat Out To Help Out scheme or indeed hospitality in general, there have been many calls for evidential proof of this, none has ever been forthcoming. Professor Tim Spector, who created the Zoe Covid Symptom Study, when asked at the weekend about whether private gardens were safer than outdoor pubs or restaurants, he said: “Actually, sometimes a beer garden is more controlled than people’s homes and gardens. Generally, most establishments are well behaved and I think they clean the tables and people keep their distance and I see no reason why we couldn’t move towards that in places that are well set up for it.”

Let’s not forget hospitality reopened in July last year with toughest covid protocols in the world – risk assessed with controls on capacity, managed social distancing, hygiene and ventilation. As UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “It kept people safe, 60 million visits a week, no increase in cases and less than 1% of staff caught covid – it’s the model. It is how we should approach reopening this time – what are the risks, how can we mitigate them and ensure controls are delivering maximum health benefit for minimum economic harm to avoid persistent damage to businesses and jobs? The July to September protocols do that. But let’s be clear, operating under those controls our hospitality and tourism businesses did not break even. So, they need to be the firm starting point and we should look to progressively ease them to allow businesses to survive, recover, rebuild and help reimagine communities.” Of course, the sector will need more longer-term support to do this and to trade through and out the other side.

During the weekend, serial sector investor Luke Johnson tweeted: “The biggest threat from lockdowns is that we complied so quietly. We surrendered our rights and freedoms without a whimper. Now the authorities will feel empowered to use them again – another virus, another ‘threat’. A terrible precedent has been set.” The key thing for a sector that is, quite rightly, fatigued is that over the next two weeks, it finds the energy to keep fighting, to keep pushing back on possible restrictions that although it is desperate to reopen, may cause it more harm in the long term and then be harder to reverse. Decisions made now could shape the sector for years to come. Opening pubs without selling alcohol is not “reopening” pubs at all. As British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Emma McClarkin said: “Selling alcohol in a safe environment is at the core of what we do. Despite our business model being stripped bare, the very core of what we do is now under attack. This has to stop.” Hopefully a line has been drawn under this ludicrous idea but, with this government, you can never be sure. We have to keep writing to MPs and leading players must continue to put themselves out there to the national media to put the sector’s case across. Last June, many people on Twitter began talking about where they would go for their first restaurant meal after lockdown. Personally, I just want to go to my local pub and have a pint of beer, because I want to see people and I want to see life. And that is worth fighting for.
Mark Wingett is Propel insights editor

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