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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Wed 12th Jan 2022 - Legal Briefing

Learning to live with covid by Michelle Hazlewood

While we are excited to welcome in a brand-new year, we still find ourselves trapped in this pandemic era. However, this time around the situation at hand is drastically different, and it appears that we may be at a turning point. As we reflect on the comparisons of this year and last, it is clear we are in a place of perverse contradiction. We are seeing the highest level of recorded positive covid-19 cases, triple the numbers of last January, yet there are no lockdowns, no heavy restrictions and the doors of hospitality are fully open (in England at least).

Despite such an uncertain time during the festive period, the outlook appears positive. In England, we sit under the restrictions of Plan B but have repeated assurances from the prime minister that no further rules will be imposed. The government has developed, without a doubt, a greater understanding of the role hospitality plays within our society including the provision of jobs, tax to the exchequer, social cohesion and good mental wellbeing.

We have witnessed a high amount of productive interaction between the executive and hospitality industry bodies who have communicated so well and, in turn, reaped significant concessions for the sector. These individuals and groups should be applauded for representing our industry with determination and passion, particularly UKHospitality, BII and BBPA. Additionally, England as a whole is seeing a change in the general rhetoric surrounding covid. The government and its scientific advisor continue to push for large-scale immunity by vaccination and hope this to be the ultimate remedy rather than the burdensome restrictions we have witnessed before. Boris Johnson stated in his press conference on 4 January that “we can find a way to live with this virus”.

Unfortunately, within the other jurisdictions of the UK, such a robust approach has not been adopted. The Scottish first minister swiftly implemented heavier restrictions, with the closure of nightclubs and table service in place until 17 January. The Welsh first minister has also imposed similar constraints. This meant New Year’s Eve events, which are often the biggest night of the year for late-night venues, were scrapped completely. We can only hope that these leaders see that the economic impact of this action is disproportionate when compared against the potential marginal differences in levels of hospitalisation and use of intensive care provisions. 

Although the sector remains open and most trade is able to continue, it is clear the pandemic is continuing to strike harsh blows on the industry, even if not directly. The new challenges are now like side winds buffeting, and we can only hope these do not become a storm. Staff shortages and customer cancelations due to illness and self-isolation have had a profound affect. Financial support remains critical, and this has in part been acknowledged by both central government and the devolved administrations in the provision of recent grant announcements.

However, the industry is also calling for a freeze of VAT at 12.5% instead of the planned rise to the original 20% in April. Since vital Christmas incomes were lost, this kind of support is needed to maintain confidence in the high street. Additionally, a reduction in the isolation period from ten to seven days following two negative lateral flow tests was hugely welcomed in England and has now been mirrored in Scotland and Wales. This should ease staffing issues that have strained hospitality and many other services. The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, recently came forward to support the initial concept of an additional reduction to just a five-day isolation period, similar to the process adopted in the United States.

The biggest question on the horizon relates to the potential of the more prominent use of passports. Despite our fabulous statistics regarding vaccination rates, around 10% of the adult population remains unvaccinated. In the last week, we have heard other national leaders using increasingly bold language on the next course of action relating to potential social prohibition and vaccine passes. President Macron of France has made it very clear that he will disrupt the lives of the unvaccinated to such an extent that, in the terminology of the BBC, they will “feel harassed or excluded or incurring significant costs”. We have also just seen the conclusion of the saga surrounding Serbian tennis player, Novak Djokovic, and his ability to enter Australia, and here we have the covid passport required for entry to a limited number of locations.  

The crystal ball is unable to tell us for certain if, in 2022, the government will remain in a position of free choice on vaccination but increasingly make access to pleasure difficult if an individual is not vaccinated. If this approach is adopted it will, of course, place a significant burden on those who have to police access to these venues. We currently have rules in place regarding nightclubs, but this could progress to being relevant for other locations such as bars, restaurants or entertainment venues.

The more long-term obstacles relate to the subconscious mind of the general public. Plan B and other prolonged covid-related concerns have changed our behaviour as a collective. Even though hospitality has been spared, the return of the requirement for mask-wearing appears to have awoken an increased awareness of risk. In early December, the prime minister and chief medical adviser told the public to “think carefully before you go” and urged us “not to mix with people you don’t have to”. It is quite likely that some customers may be making the decision to minimise these risks by reducing their outings.

Part of the challenge for operators this year will be to find ways to encourage old regulars back, or bring in new customers who may be less willing to try something new and step out of their geographical or social comfort zone. Somehow, we must rekindle the important social contract between operator and customer which is so vital to smooth operation, such as if a booking is made, the timeslot is honoured and not cancelled or abandoned. There must be a re-building of national self-confidence that will empower the young to dance, the middle age to quiz and the older generations to enjoy mid-week lunches again, because each and every one of those customers is fundamental to the success of a different business.

Let us hope that we have reached a crossroads with the pandemic, and that 2022 will be a brilliant year for hospitality.
Michelle Hazlewood is a partner at John Gaunt & Partners

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