British hospitality: pandemic reality bites

The squeeze on the UK hospitality sector has worsened, triggering protests and a call for a Minister for Hospitality, reports Jacquetta Picton

With a cacophony of clashing pots and pans a crowd of over 200 hospitality workers marched to Parliament Square in London on Monday 19 October. They were protesting about the Tier 2 system of restrictions imposed on the capital city by the UK government in an effort to stop the rise in cases of Covid-19.

From midnight on Friday 16 October, London was thrown into Tier 2 lockdown meaning individuals from different households are banned from mixing indoors – even in hospitality venues – with outdoor socially distanced mingling permitted for groups of up to six.

Jobs and businesses at risk

Among the protesters was chef Yotam Ottolenghi who reckoned the restrictions would, “kill viable businesses.” Almost a third of restaurants and pubs in England are set to be affected by the tougher tier curbs – more than 8,500 venues and 5,000 pubs. At the time the Tier 2, according to critics, put a squeeze on revenue yet offered no support for the affected businesses. Up to 200,000 jobs were reported to be at risk in London alone.

The din in Parliament Square on Monday must have reached the ears of UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak as on Thursday he announced a package of measures in his Plan For Jobs to help struggling businesses and employees in Tier 2 areas as well as the more stringent Tier 3.

“Just as we have throughout this crisis, we will listen and respond to people’s concerns as the circumstances evolve,” he told a Downing Street press conference, conceding that business were struggling under the “cumulative weight of all these new restrictions”

On offer are grants of up to £2,100 per month and the reduction of the employer’s contribution. Instead of a minimum requirement of paying 55% of wages for a third of hours, as announced last month at the launch of the Winter Economic Plan, employers will have to pay for a minimum of 20% of usual hours worked, and 5% of hours not worked.

This means the government will now fund 62% of the wages for hours not worked, more than doubling the maximum payment to £1,541.75 a month. In the most generous case, the taxpayer will now fund just under half of wages (up from 22%).

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality lobby group, which represents restaurants, pubs, bars and hotels, tweeted that the deal is “Crucially securing help for our teams but also giving biz a lifeline to remain viable through continued trading where possible and a quicker and easier return to growth as restrictions ease. Thanks for listening and continuing to support the 3rd largest employer.”

Petition and lobby

Of interest to FCSI members is the petition launched calling for the appointment of a ‘Minister for Hospitality’ to provide leadership and guidance from within the prime minister’s Cabinet.

Chris Stern FCSI of Stern Consultancy has signed the petition and is keen to get it over the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a debate in the House of Commons. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before [having a minister for hospitality] because given how big the hospitality sector is it would make sense, how many million people do we employ? And hospitality touches absolutely everyone.”

The pandemic is a terrible thing, but it is no one’s fault. The government response has been reactive rather than planned and it is hoped a Minister for Hospitality could help with that. “A Minister of Hospitality would help the government look forward. At moment it’s all knee jerk, but moving forward we need something that’s not knee jerk any more. We need someone who’s in touch with it, gets it and can inform other ministers of what can be done,” says Stern.

“A Minister could communicate better how safe our industry can make it for people, give it a proper voice. Kate Nicholls [UKHospitality] has been doing that, she seems to have the ear of government. But she can’t do that forever. And a Minister would have more teeth than she has.”

A voice for all

Phil Hutchinson-May an experienced recruitment professional and co-founder of Foodservice Central Ltd, who specialises in staff for the hospitality sector has also signed the petition and written to his local MP. “[Hospitality] is such a diverse sector. There are also the people around the edges of the hospitality business – the suppliers of event equipment, training and recruitment. It needs a single strong voice,” he says. “Who unites the likes of Tim Martin of Wetherspoons with my local community pub the Craufurd Arms?”

The Craufurd Arms was rescued by a crowdfunding effort about three years ago. Being a small, wet-led, urban pub with no outside space it was knocked back by lockdown. However it survived the period by offering takeaways and has reopened since July with limited capacity.

Its chairman of trustees Mark Newcombe reckons it has a lot going for it. “Being a community pub our customers have ownership of it so they try their best to support it,” he says.

“Our customers are all either investors or locals and we know them all. Kicking them out at quarter to 10 is hard. We’ve been very strict with all the rules and invested in a UVC sanitation unit that kills all air-born bacteria and viruses. But it’s getting harder and harder. How long is it going to last?”

Jacquetta Picton

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