The Social Undistanceables: A Plan

The Social Undistanceables: A Plan

Pic of Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland by Mike Smithson

Thinking through the problem of the moment

What a mouthful. Like the name for a reality TV programme. Trying to match up the odd, the awkward, the peculiar. Or perhaps a play – if a theatre can be found. Almost unremarked, the RSC recently announced it would close until next January. Birmingham Hippodrome has started redundancy consultations, its reason being what Basil Fawlty might have termed the “bleedin’ obvious”: “We are unable to reopen until social distancing measures are relaxed”. “Abandoned” might be a better word. (Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Keswick’s Theatre on the Lake are doing the same. More will follow.) The performance arts are facing an existential crisis in the land of Shakespeare, a land with a claim to having one of the best, richest, most vigorous and influential theatrical traditions around.

I feel particularly sad about this. Like many lawyers, I am an actor manqué. As a teenager I beat Daniel Day-Lewis in an acting competition. My Juliet was to die for. He is now a 3-times Oscar winner. And I am here.

Sometimes life just doesn’t go to plan. An epitaph for 2020, perhaps.

But there are others equally damaged by social distancing: all those activities and businesses whose very purpose is social closeness: not just theatre but live music-making, choirs, cafes, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs etc.

In my largely rural corner of South Lakeland, there are many such places: repurposed old and industrial buildings (the clock tower into a restaurant), a former mining HQ into a hotel/restaurant, part of the train station into a town museum and café, an old 18th century coaching inn into a pub, a chapel into the village hall, an old club into a small theatre, 19th century halls hosting music festivals. Even done up, they show their historical and architectural origins: low ceilings, slate floors, arrangements of rooms rather than large open-plan spaces, fireplaces etc. It is part of their charm; and often required by local planning authorities seeking to preserve what is best about an area’s history, to avoid ruining character and beauty. This may sound sentimental. But sensitivity to what is around us and valued by many should not be casually dismissed.

Here the pub, the café, the restaurants are not simply a place for people to buy a drink or eat: it is where locals meet to exchange gossip, to find out what is going on, to make friends (particularly valuable for those new to the area), to raise money for local charities, to have meetings and talks – for the local history and photography societies, for instance, or by the Arts Council funded artist making locally inspired sculptures (think Andy Goldsworthy to get the idea). It is where funeral wakes and teas are held; live music performed; mountain bikers, walkers, climbers and riders – fresh from galloping along the long sandy beach – stop for refreshments. This is what society means – in this rural corner, anyway.

If places like these close, there are few other locales where social activity can happen. There is no obvious public square or streets to walk down, Italian-style, for one’s passeggiata, certainly not in normal Lake District weather most of the year. To meet people by chance, walking one’s dog will become de rigeur, more so than now. These meeting places – one of the threads making the community, allowing society’s “little platoons” to operate, one of the attractions for visitors – will vanish and the community will be the poorer for it. Every area has its own version of this. Of course, places and people’s wants change. Nothing is – or can be – preserved unchanged forever. But the need, the desire for social closeness, friendship, mixing, support and communal action will remain. We should not make it needlessly hard for this to happen nor for its providers to ply their trade.

How to reconcile minimising the virus’s harm with not doing irreparable economic and social harm? Whenever lockdown is eased or lifted – and whether now it is wise to do so is debatable – here are some suggestions – from the perspective of small hospitality businesses.

  1. No Magic Wand – Government cannot do everything. Even if they can trade freely, businesses will likely face customer behaviour changes, will have to adapt. Hard work, resourcefulness and luck will be needed and still may not be enough. Businesses understand the vagaries of business life. But they need the chance to try.
  2. Careless Talk Costs – Government should understand the level of fear and worry there currently is. Uncertainty is crippling. So don’t add to it by anonymous kite-flying to newspapers or favoured entrepreneurs or speculation one day, then withdrawn hours or days later. Businesses have enough to worry about without wondering which rumour they need to concern themselves with. “Engage brain before opening mouth” ought to be put in front of every Minister before they speak. For a government led by a former journalist, its communications strategy is woeful.
  3. To Everything There Is A Season – Understand that hospitality in particular is very seasonally based: the high earning months when fat is earned to see businesses through leaner winter months are March to September. Nearly half of that, four of the highest earning Bank Holiday weekends and Mother’s Day have been lost; and all during glorious weather when people would be out spending. Government grants, however welcome, scratch the surface of what has been – is being – lost. If the rest of the season is to be salvaged, hospitality cannot have its hands tied behind its back. If it cannot open at all because it is still too risky, then it will need supporting for a while longer.
  4. One Size Does Not Fit All – What works for big London gastro-eateries will not work for country pubs. A la carte not menu fixe should be the approach. Set out guidance about the ranges of measures from which venues can choose what works best for them and their customers. Businesses should be free to adopt whatever is reasonable for their premises: sensible hygiene practices for customers eg hand gel dispensers, good ventilation, rigorous and regular cleaning, additional spacing – if that is physically/financially possible. But do not make them legal requirements – either in regulations or by the back door through EHOs or the police. Hospitality already has strict food hygiene regulations to follow. Telling a hospitality venue to stop customers mingling when that is why they have come is to ask it to self-harm. It’s contradictory nonsense.
  5. Let’s Kill All The Lawyers (Henry VI, Part 2 – one of Shakespeare’s little jokes) – not literally (obviously). Remove legal liability for the virus from venues (and, incidentally, hospitals – pretty risky places these days). Venues are not now liable if customer A catches a serious illness from Customer B’s sneezing or chatting. Why should that change just because there is a new virus?
  6. Fairness – Work with the insurance industry to have fairer burden-sharing. Currently, even with government grants and furlough, it is businesses which have borne the brunt of the costs of the shutdown. Why? They are not responsible for the problem and have not even been able to claim on expensively bought insurance policies for losses suffered, let alone the loss of business. An FCA report tut-tutting about it all some years later is neither use nor ornament.
  7. Cut Red Tape – At last this perennial Tory cry can help! Relax licensing laws to allow business to be carried on outside without needing expensive, time-consuming applications. Don’t impose pointless restrictions – like requiring food to be bought with a drink. Just get them opening, attracting customers, people working, giving them a chance to use their entrepreneurial oomph. A bit of imaginative speedy cut-through is needed in exceptional times.
  8. And If All Else Fails – Consider converting grants/bounce back loans into compensation for closed businesses, perhaps making it conditional on being used – at least in part – to create new ones/learn new skills/retrain.

There really is such a thing as society” said the PM this March. Indeed. Or as a famous Irishman put it in 2016: “We are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture, a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon.” Those social undistanceables are part of our culture.


PS Hat-tip and thanks to a fellow PB’er (he knows who he is) for that marvellous phrase – social undistanceables.

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