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Mon 22nd Jun 2020 - Opinion Special: No more ifs, buts or maybes please Boris

No more ifs, buts or maybes please Boris by Mark Wingett

A tweet from this weekend courtesy of MeatLiquor founder Scott Collins: “If 4 July is the ‘legal’ reopening date for pubs/bars/restaurants can they open at 12.01am (licence permitting)? Just wondering…@charliemcveigh.” To which the Draft House founder, speaking for the vast majority of the industry, replied: “No one knows anything! That's the problem!” And there it is in a nutshell. Tomorrow (Tuesday, 23 June) at 5pm, we will again be glued to our TVs and devices awaiting the prime minister to provide us with long overdue good news – an opening date and a set of guidelines we can work to for said reopening. Both are way overdue. As Sacha Lord posted: “We’ve been asking the government for a three-week lead in, to fully restock, retrain, put new measures in place, re-staff and properly risk assess prior to opening. It is giving the sector ten days. The hospitality industry has been badly let down.” No argument here. So, can Boris deliver what we all hope is the first of a number of silver bullets tomorrow evening? Unsurprisingly, the leaked messages to the press over the weekend brought the usual mixture of hope, head scratching and frustration. Hope continues to be a more comfortable bedfellow than expectation.

We can all agree the government has had to write the playbook on how to handle this pandemic on the hoof, but its workings out, led by numerous public polling – if there have been any – have become increasingly questionable, especially as vast parts of Europe have opened up ahead of us. Having been given crumbs to feed off for weeks in terms of positive news, increasing parts of the sector has embraced the mooted 4 July reopening date with gusto and run with it, government confirmation or not. The genie is very much out of the bottle, booking lines are indeed open and battle lines drawn. Oakman Inns, led by Peter Borg-Neal, has become its rally point, with Borg-Neal, challenging the government to stop him from opening on 4 July. This weekend, Luke Johnson and Hugh Osmond became the latest to follow his lead and state the companies they back would also open on the increasingly apt, Independence Day. A positive side note from this is the demand for said openings is there – fears consumers will remain in their homes have slightly been assuaged as Oakman and some of its peers have reported a surge in bookings. But this planning has been done through guesswork and up to this point on a two-metre physical distancing premise. Too much has been based on assumptions, this one included, and now the goalposts may move again. What does one metre-plus mean?

So let’s look at the latest infuriating leaked messages over the weekend – firstly, the date. The 4 July is I think we can all agree the date some parts of the hospitality sector will open up. A revolution may ensue if that is not the case, but what parts? Will this just be for the long trailed outside spaces and the “al fresco revolution” we were told about over the weekend? Will the government see how this goes and then look to begin opening internal spaces a few weeks later? And what does that mean for all the businesses that have already opened for bookings? Can they afford to then turn around to consumers and say their booking has to be cancelled? It’s no way to build up much-needed goodwill. And this is all prevalent on the weather playing ball. Across the UK, there are countless examples of people already gathering at less than one metre to enjoy an al fresco drink. All the sector is asking is to be allowed to at one metre – and deliver this experience safely. It may get its wish tomorrow, but with further hoops to jump through. 

In case of one metre-plus, it sounds like the plus will include face masks, screens and tracking measures. Many operators have already baulked at the idea of turning their sites into replicas of intensive care units but will that still be the price to pay for finally getting to open up? Hopefully there won’t be too much expense in changing configuration from two metres to one metre over the next ten days. Sector analyst Simon Stenning says: “I'd advise to plan on ‘guidelines’ – not rules, and operators make venues as ‘covid-secure’ for guests and staff, as possible. The idea of one metre-plus is designed for flexibility, specifically for hospitality.” If reports are led to be believed, bars and restaurants will have to keep a record of everyone who visits before being served under the new plans. A GDPR flag was already raised on this over the weekend, but the government is probably following what has already been put in place in other countries. A similar scheme was adopted in Switzerland, with a form given to every group of guests. It's up to them to fill it out. The business needs to hold the paperwork on file for two weeks. People have the option not to give their data. About 50% don't, according to some anecdotal evidence from friends of the Guinea Grill’s Oisin Rogers. Technology will have a huge role to play here, as it will in terms of how sites operate going forward.

Speaking to Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday morning (21 June), health secretary Matt Hancock was asked about plans for registration and ordering drinks through apps when pubs are allowed to trade again as coronavirus lock-down measures are eased. “That's the sort of thing we're looking at for how do you make it safe to open things,” said Hancock. “And that’s about things like wearing a face mask, which reduces the transmission clearly; how the seating is arranged because face-to-face is much more dangerous than back-to-back and there's more transmission than side-to-side. And also the sorts of things you can put in place to strengthen test and trace because the whole approach is to move as much as safely as possible from a national lock-down towards targeted local action when we see an outbreak.” Pressed on registering before a pub, Hancock said: “I wouldn't rule it out, it isn't a decision we’ve taken yet but there are other countries in the world that take that approach.” As Loungers chairman Alex Reilley tweeted later that morning: “With an announcement allegedly due in 48 hours about the reopening of hospitality in just 13 days’ time, Matt Hancock doesn’t want to ‘rule anything out’, which means we can’t rule anything in! For the sake of more than three million jobs it’s time for leaders to lead!”

The hope, above all hope, is tomorrow’s announcement isn’t another fudge job, raising more questions than answers. But for many in the sector this has gone on so long the time to care about details has passed. As McVeigh said in his Propel Premium piece on Friday: “Despite the fact it leaves hospitality in an utterly invidious position in terms of the inability to plan, we'd still grasp it with both hands.” Of course, many will need to open in whatever form, because the cash has long run out and this is the last roll of the dice. The fact the industry has come together over the past three months has been great to see, but over the next few weeks and months it will be back to very much taking care of ourselves. I fear that will be highlighted in how many independent businesses fail in the rush to reopen, versus some of their larger, branded brethren, which will take more time to assess the lay of the land and reduce the risk of a false start. Simon Emeny, chief executive of Fuller’s, has reportedly said he will only reopen 27 of his managed pubs with two-metre distancing. He said: “We asked for four weeks’ notice, we asked for one metre social distancing and we have had neither. So, we are going to keep 90% of our estate closed on 4 July.” Others are not planning to reopen until August. There is also the issue of trying to get employees off the furlough scheme, which is proving difficult for many.

While on the above I don’t want to sound like a party pooper – and I will be trying to get into a beer garden on 4 July, whatever the weather – the recent track record of the government on providing clarity has left me jaded and cynical. I doubt I am the only one. Saying that there were two positive points from the past few days that should prove helpful in the longer-term. Friday’s (19 June) extension of the enforcement moratorium to 30 September is one such step. It does kick the rent issue can further down the road, and yet again further adds credence to the theory the government doesn’t really want to get involved in this issue – although the more landlords struggle to meet debt repayments then the more chance the dial may move. But it should pave the way for (fingers crossed) further discussions around the June quarter date and enable businesses to open next month and at least have some trading data to frame the September quarter discussions, and what support maybe needed not just for the remainder of this year but for the next 18 months. Secondly, there were indications the chancellor Rishi Sunak is ready to slash VAT and pump billions into the economy as the government prepares to ease social distancing rules. A limited-time VAT cut, say for the next five months to Christmas, would be a major fillip for businesses struggling to generate cash to open up and rebuild momentum, and put more money in consumers’ pockets. Perhaps this should be the next point for the industry to rally behind?

Sadly not every business will make it to 4 July, and some will fall over just with the effort of getting there and opening. This morning’s findings from a new survey of UKHospitality members paint a gloomy picture of low expectations in terms of levels of trade, which are expected to be significantly suppressed for many months to come. The government needs to still give consumers confidence it is safe to come out and play so to speak. We all know they will be in good hands with a sector that can deliver social experiences safely. All through the crisis, the industry has been supportive and constructive towards what the government has been trying to achieve, but over the past few weeks has felt let down this has not been reciprocated. Tomorrow evening, the prime minister has another chance to provide some much-needed, overdue clarity. He has no distance left to run on this.
Mark Wingett is Propel insights editor

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