UK hospitality industry calls for clarity amid lockdown speculation

UK: Hospitality operators have called for clarity amid talk that the UK Government is considering new lockdown restrictions, in light of the surge of Omicron variant cases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hosting a Cabinet meeting today [20 December] in which further restrictions are likely to be discussed, including three potential options for action. It is rumoured that a press conference will be scheduled for later today in which the government would reportedly outline the latest on the outbreak and update the public on new rules.

The loosest of the three potential options would be to urge families to limit their indoor contacts, rather than legally enforcing new restrictions.

However, the other two options rumoured to be on the table are likely to provoke more uproar across the hospitality industry.

On one hand, Johnson is believed to be considering curbing household mixing, enforcing social distancing and implementing an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, and on the other, a full lockdown, which would close pubs and restaurants indefinitely, is also being weighed up.

Current regulations require employees to work from home where possible, the compulsory wearing of masks on public transport, and vaccine passports for nightclubs and other large indoor venues.

It comes after Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were criticised by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for not attending a COBRA meeting between the devolved governments over the weekend, which had been set up to discuss a joined-up approach to coronavirus measures over the Christmas period and funding to combat the Omicron “tsunami”.

Chef Tom Kerridge posted on Twitter [14 December] cancellations of over 650 guests in the past six days. He said: “I understand why. Public health is THE most important thing. But what will the government do to support the industry? Many places will crumble without help.”

Chef Michel Roux Jr also tweeted [15 December]: “My daughter’s restaurant’s has had over 300 cancellations in the last two days, gone from breaking even to a loss. Boris John and Rishi Sunak – hospitality and the supply chain need help, this is deja vu March 2020.”

Simon Emeny, chief executive of Fuller Smith and Turner, said: “Operating a large number of units in central London, we’re really in the eye of this hospitality challenge. The reality in London is that our sales are currently down between 60 and 80 per cent. As a result, we are closing 20 of what would have been our busiest sites indefinitely.”

David Weston, chairman of the Bed & Breakfast Association, said: “We have been hit by a perfect storm as customers cancel, forward bookings dry up, costs rise, staff shortages bite and the ‘pingdemic’ returns with a vengeance.”

Chief executive of UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, said: “Trading has already been hugely damaged by the steady stream of pessimistic news following the discovery of the Omicron variant, at a time when hospitality would normally expect to be making a quarter of its annual profits. We know from previous lockdowns that it causes venues to haemorrhage cash. It costs £10,000 to close each site and a subsequent £10,000 per month on overheads, and that was with full furlough and rate relief. 

“An extension to business rates relief and the lower VAT rate will help longer-term planning and budgeting but speedily delivered grants will be vital to short-term business survival. To minimise further damage, it is also crucial that the government gives as early a signal as possible about whether measures are to be imposed and what they might be, in order to allow businesses to salvage something from Christmas and the New Year,” she added.

UKHospitality Scotland executive director Leon Thompson said: “Hospitality’s Christmas trade diminishes further with every piece of health advice put out by the Scottish Government. The repeat of advice from the First Minister for people to stay at home will have set phones ringing once more in our beleaguered businesses, as cancellations continue to flow in.

“Confirmation that hospitality businesses will receive £66 million of the £100 million announced last week is, whilst very welcome, going to have limited impact for a sector that has now haemorrhaged £1 billion over the last two weeks. Scottish government officials now have the unenviable task of salami slicing a support package that is way too small and now unlikely to reach businesses until some point in January. Businesses with little or no cashflow are despairing.

“UKHospitality Scotland is calling on the Scottish Government to revisit its decision to provide only three months of rate relief next financial year and instead commit to delivering at least 50 per cent support for the full year. Our businesses are in dire circumstances and without greater immediate support and a commitment to more rates relief next year many are not going to survive,” he added.

Nick Mackenzie, chief executive at Greene King, which has over 150 pubs and restaurants in Scotland, said: “The current public health situation is clearly serious and our teams will continue offering a safe and welcoming visit for our customers, but the measures announced in Scotland will have a significant and detrimental impact on all hospitality businesses.

“Our teams are already going above and beyond in their pubs and a need to enforce collection of customer contact details and social distancing would be a further challenge. We welcome the announcement of financial support for those affected by the government’s announcement around work Christmas parties, but in reality the ripple effects on customer confidence will continue and the £100 million announced is unlikely to go far among all the thousands of businesses affected. 

“The industry needs urgent further support over the difficult winter months to protect jobs and livelihoods,” he added.