Reopen Britain's happiness industry says food critic TOM PARKER BOWLES
22nd November 2020

Reopen Britain’s happiness industry! Want to save jobs, kick-start the economy and protect our mental health? There’s an easy answer says MoS food critic TOM PARKER BOWLES

  • Unless pubs, hotels and restaurants are allowed to reopen soon they face ruin
  • In normal times, they would be gearing up for busiest month of the whole year
  • Dozens of chefs, restaurateurs, suppliers and hotel owners say they need to open urgently

For Raymond Blanc, the distinguished chef and restaurateur, the end of lockdown had better bring good news. ‘We make about 25 per cent of our profit around Christmas,’ he said. ‘No Christmas, big trouble.’

He speaks for the entire British hospitality business. Because unless pubs, hotels and restaurants are allowed to reopen straight away and with a minimum of restrictions, they face ruin.

In normal times, they would be gearing up for the busiest month of the year as we eat, drink and make very merry indeed.

Want to save jobs, kick-start the economy and protect our mental health? There’s an easy answer, says food critic Tom Parker Bowles

Today, things are different. As England crawls, blinking, out of lockdown on December 2, it will be greeted by an industry on its knees, teetering on the edge of the most vicious precipice. Even now the Government has failed to say what exactly is going to happen. Pub and restaurant owners will have to wait until Thursday to find out which new ‘tier’ they will be in, and how they will be allowed to trade. It might not be enough.

I’ve spoken to dozens of chefs, restaurateurs, suppliers and hotel owners. And they all agree on one thing: it is essential they throw open their doors. And urgently.

It’s not as if hospitality is a hotbed of infection. Far from it. The latest data from Public Health England states a mere one per cent of positive tests have come from people visiting restaurants, and only 1.6 per cent from pubs and bars.

There’s widespread frustration that Boris Johnson and his scientific advisers are paying no attention to the facts, to the hard work of owners and managers – or to the piles of hard cash they’ve already paid to make their premises Covid-secure.

The industry has gone above and beyond, spending thousands in every venue across the country on protective equipment, new signs, new health and safety systems and much else besides.

Des Gunewardena, of D&D London, owner of more than 42 restaurants and bars across the country, says he’s had zero calls from NHS track and trace since they reopened. And that’s despite serving almost 700,000 customers.

So will the Government persist with its ill-thought-of Rule of Six (banning gatherings of more than six) when December comes? Why six? Why not eight or ten? What is the justification for this exact number?

Then there’s the Byzantine tier system. Three more tiers will be announced this week, but there’s widespread confusion about these seemingly arbitrary, knee-jerk reaction restrictions. Who exactly will be allowed to book a table when restaurants reopen?

The Government needs to be more transparent than an Escoffier consommé clear soup. And now.

The continued policy of scapegoating hospitality has no basis in science, safety or common sense. Restaurants and pubs – when the rules are followed – are among the very safest places for people to socialise. They are licensed venues with trained staff, experts in food hygiene and customer safety. Keeping pubs and restaurants closed could have the opposite effect of the one intended, in fact. Socialising will still happen, but without the regulations. Common sense goes out of the window after a few drinks.

For Raymond Blanc, (pictured) the distinguished chef and restaurateur, the end of lockdown had better bring good news

The effects of this disastrous shutdown go way beyond the staff and customers. It’s no exaggeration to say that hospitality is vital to the UK economy. At the start of this year, the trade had an annual revenue of £130 billion, employed 3.2 million people and was forecasting yearly growth of 5 per cent. Hospitality was generating one in every six new jobs. Since then, the workforce has been cut by a fifth and the rate of growth has almost halved – and that was before the latest month-long lockdown.

Unlike other businesses, hospitality never fully emerged from the initial lockdown and has been subject to significant social-distancing restrictions. So, while pubs, restaurants and hotels did eventually open, for much of the time they’ve been operating at a loss.

The streets of Soho have been devoid of any people due to the lockdown to reduce the spread of the virus

OK, furlough has been extended, but that benefits employees, not businesses. The sector has a £1.5 billion black hole in its cashflows. Negotiations are continuing with landlords, but business rates and fixed costs still apply. Customers may be non-existent, but the bills still flood in.

Even those workers lucky enough to keep their jobs are suffering, with some front-of-house staff attempting to get by on 40 per cent of their normal wage or less before lockdown. Tips, an essential part of their income, are not covered by furlough. I’m told these workers face deep hardship and, in many cases, home evictions. For some, this really is a matter of keeping body and soul together.

And what about the supply chain – farmers, fishermen, butchers, bakers, cheese makers and more? Many of these producers are too small to be a part of the vast supermarket sales network, but Britain needs them to survive and prosper.

Don’t forget the porters, delivery drivers, accountants, pest controllers, plumbers, electricians, advertising firms, and public relations teams. The kitchen equipment sellers, and industrial cleaners, taxi drivers and laundries, who all rely upon a healthy hospitality sector.

Jamie Montgomery, maker of the eponymous cheddar, despairs. ‘How long can we be expected to carry on slaving away being cut off at the knees? Still expected to pay our taxes to fund everyone not working? I can’t furlough the cows.’

Chefs, restaurateurs, suppliers and hotel owners all agree it is essential they throw open their doors…….and urgently

If the sector really is to open its doors for December, the announcement cannot come soon enough.

The Government fails to understand that reopening a pub or restaurant is not simply a matter of unlocking the door and switching on the lights. Raymond Blanc says it takes him two weeks to get ready, at the very least.

Remember, there is much more at stake in all this than Covid-19, or even the economy. Restaurants and pubs are cornerstones of civilisation, places where people go to meet, greet, mingle and relax.

‘We can argue all we like about employment, businesses, city centres and tax,’ says Will Beckett, co-founder of the Hawksmoor restaurant group. ‘But I honestly think hospitality should open for one crucial reason: Happiness. We all need a bit of that.’

Or as a London pub landlord put it: ‘Our business is conviviality and happiness, and we are in limbo – stuck, trapped, strangled by this pandemic. While the health and safety of our guests and staff is our priority, we are the lifeblood of society, the beating heart of fun.’

The latest data from Public Health England states a mere one per cent of positive tests have come from people visiting restaurants

There will be slightly better news on the destructive 10pm curfew: Drinkers and diners will be allowed to stay till 11pm (even if last orders are an hour earlier). But ‘wet’ pubs that serve no food will remain closed in the worst-affected areas. And that will be a death-knell.

I would urge the Prime Minister to listen to the voices of those who know for a certain fact that they and their suppliers face ruin. A country where the hubbub of the pub is silenced for ever, the clatter of knives and forks a distant memory.

Simon Emeny, group chief executive of the Fuller’s pub group, says many will simply collapse unless they reopen now.

Enough, then, of the confusion and obscuration, the mealy-mouthed, muddled messages and the total lack of any sensible long-term strategy. We must restart the hospitality business now and without restrictions. Households must be allowed to mix in restaurants, bars and pubs, at least in Tier Two.

As Richard Corrigan, another noted chef and restaurateur, so rightly says: ‘We’re on a cliff edge and trying to hang on with dear life. Any further knocks will finish us off.’

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