Sunday 21 February 2021

Hospitality: no further room for mistakes

I've been told the pandemic may have
already killed off the Belvedere in Liverpool
The constant refrain we have heard from the government during the pandemic is that they are 'following the science', and yet sometimes that is the last thing they appear to do. To give just one example: the insistence that the UK must be open over the whole Christmas period, until a last-minute U-turn limited it to one day. A pandemic cannot be defeated by breezy optimism and a conviction that the British Bulldog spirit will see us through.

The hospitality industry has had many restrictions - some reasonable, some less so - and shutdowns imposed upon it, often at very short notice, causing huge amounts of avoidable waste. It is impossible for pubs and restaurants to order adequate stocks of food and drink to meet customers' requirements while simultaneously be ready to close at the drop of a hat. Food and beer are perishable – real ale particularly because once the cask is opened, it must be consumed in days, not weeks.

A survey across the hospitality sector by Lumina Intelligence found that 67% of businesses wouldn't be able to reopen if the sale of alcohol was banned, with 19% stating that such a restriction would have an extreme impact upon their businesses. Furthermore, the British Beer & Pub Association has found that limiting reopening to outdoor service would leave 60% of pubs closed while causing an estimated drop in turnover for the sector of £1.5 billion compared to normal trading.

Some parts of the national media haven't helped by demanding dates for the lifting of lockdown, with one national paper proclaiming “Free by Summer”. Unjustifiably raising hopes only causes extreme disappointment if they cannot be fulfilled, and is likely to encourage further breaches of restrictions as people conclude that our leaders don't have coherent plans.

Restrictions such as requiring pub customers to have a 'substantial meal' with their drinks, and then debating in public as to whether a Scotch egg constituted one, gave the impression that policy was being made up on the hoof.

Hospitality is rapidly approaching a 'make-or-break' situation; after nearly a year there is now little room for yet more wrong decisions to be made. Let's hope that measures are proportionate and considered, and not based on back-of-the-envelope science and knee-jerk reactions.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Pubs with no beer? You cannot be serious!

The fine frontage of the Crown
on Lime Street, Liverpool
It is rumoured that as lockdown eases, the government may allow pubs and bars to reopen without the 10.00 pm curfew and with no requirement to have a substantial meal. This all sounds quite hopeful - until you hear that they are also considering banning any alcohol sales.

The chief medical officer Chris Whitty is concerned that drinking alcohol will destroy any attempts to maintain social distancing. This is not a scientific judgment: it is simply an opinion, and it's not one that is borne out by my own experiences last summer. Every pub I went into observed all the rules and required their customers to do the same. Sometimes I forgot and more than once I was ordered by bar staff: “Oi, Neville! Go back and sanitise your hands!”

If pubs can't serve alcohol, there is a greater danger of the virus spreading in unsupervised conditions such as when groups of friends gather in one house, not for a party as such, but just to have a few drinks from supermarkets. Such behaviour will continue if reopened pubs can sell only non-alcohol drinks: very few regular pubgoers will return just for tea, coffee and soft drinks.

Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UKHospitality, tweeted: “Reopening in name only inflicts irreparable damage on hospitality as we saw October to December with restrictions with little meaningful impact on health or harm, pushing revenues as low as 20% to 30%. Unsustainable for restaurants and pubs.”

She explained how pub and bar operators had taken meticulous measures to reopen safely last summer, and how few cases of COVID-19 infections had been caused by the industry. She emphasised that, operating under such extreme limitations, the pubs and hospitality industry did not break even.

While there is always the occasional idiot on either side of the bar who will selfishly break any rule that gets in the way, when pubs reopened last year I saw no chaotic scenes of drunken abandonment, and neither did anyone else I know. This industry's problem during the pandemic is that decisions are being made about its future by politicians who know nothing about it because they never go into pubs themselves, except for photo opportunities at election time. That simply isn't good enough.