In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter

Tis the season to be jolly careful”. The Prime Minister’s default is always to go for the quip or memorable phrase. It is infuriating when so much is at stake. The other clear message is: don’t go to a restaurant or pub, unless you are on your own or with your family. If your son comes home from university, you are two households and on no account must you go out for a meal together. But you can go to a crowded shopping centre to mingle with lots of strangers and sit on a bus or tube with lots of other strangers. And you can be together with three households all hugger mugger in the same house for a week never going out or opening windows or doing any of the social distancing or cleaning that professional hospitality venues have to do because of course the virus will leave you alone. Because Xmas or something.

It is inconsistent, unscientific, dangerous twaddle. No wonder the hospitality sector is in despair.

It has been supported with millions, say some. True. (But remember: the amount spent from March onwards was not spent exclusively on hospitality but on a wide range of sectors, many of whom did not need it and were not affected or not to the same extent.) 80% furlough is being paid until March. Also true. But if there is no income coming in, how is the remaining 20% plus NI and pension contributions to be paid? Nonetheless, the government is to be commended for what it has done so far, even if it has too often be too late and reactive.

But the latest lockdown – for that is what it is, notwithstanding all the guff about easing of rules and tiers, to be announced tomorrow – is a very serious blow for hospitality. Even for those venues which can open, the overwhelming majority of their trade will disappear – not just because people choose to avoid going out but because they will be legally forbidden from doing so even if they want and venues will be legally severely restricted in what they can offer. This is not an Act of God but of government.

What now? Some suggestions.

1. So what if hospitality has already received help? It has been more affected than any other sector and now, as a direct result of government policy, is being deliberately targeted for closure and restrictions. So it is absolutely right and fair that it should have targeted support until the vaccination programme is complete.

2. It is nonsense to refuse such help on the grounds that the sector is unviable. It is not – and will not be – after vaccination. Nor will such support be open-ended now that there are viable vaccines, a programme and realistic timetable (provided the government doesn’t put one of its numpty friends in charge of it).

3. It is pointless having spent money to support the sector until now and withdraw it at this point. That is a waste of money. We will end up with wasted money and the costs of increased unemployment and bankruptcies – a double whammy. The government has to see this through.

4. One can make endless points about why the government rules on easing are absurd – a combination of sentimental twaddle about Xmas, increasing risk, inconsistency between the treatment of restaurants and shops, mixed messages, going against the science – even Sage have said that restaurants will have more anti-Covid measures than private homes etc. But what’s the point? If a sector has to shut, fine. But then the issue is to provide proper support.

5. 80% furlough is insufficient. The sector is being put in a position where even if open it cannot trade. People are being specifically told to shun such venues. Venues have fixed costs beyond wages – and they have not been able to build up reserves this year. The government was warned by Tim Farron of this – that hospitality would be facing its third winter in a row. That is now happening. It is untenable and unfair to abandon it. So the government should either (1) Pay such costs in full (ideally) or 80% up to a limit plus furlough; and/or (2) give a fixed grant – as in March.

6. Such support is entirely in line with the government’s levelling up agenda and with its promise, as reported today that “No-one should be left without hope or opportunity”. Quite so. Indeed, not to provide such support will level down and make things worse in many areas where this sector is key to the local economy.

7. If there is some snobbish queasiness about helping pubs (urgh – all those old men sat in there) or restaurants (being a waiter or chef is unskilled, unlike all those PR consultants), let them read this – which puts it far better than I can.

Come on Rishi: if you really want to help the unemployed one of the best ways is not to let them become unemployed in the first place.


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