Tuesday 20 July 2021 4:55 pm

'I told staff to delete the app': Hospitality reacts to pingdemic crisis

While the government was hailing the arrival of so-called “freedom day” yesterday, the threat of rising Covid cases and the “pingdemic” forcing staff to self isolate has left the beleaguered hospitality industry with little to celebrate.

One restaurateur told City A.M: “Our ability to operate hangs in the balance by some fairly crude geolocation tech”, while another, who asked us not to name him, said he had instructed his staff to delete the app altogether.

Many in the industry say the government’s messaging had left customers confused and has dampened the resurgence in eating and drinking some had expected.

“Freedom day is a long time coming but many people are still reticent about going out,” said AM Dupree, owner of Temaki in Brixton. “The government’s language is never clear and they’ve proven to be completely unreliable and inconsistent.”

Bars, restaurants, pubs and retailers across the country have been hit by a wave of quarantine notices from the NHS app telling workers to stay at home, despite questions over its sensitivity and mixed messaging over how strictly users should take isolation notices. It is currently a legal requirement to isolate if contacted by Track and Trace but only advisory if pinged by the NHS app. Business minister Paul Scully today suggested it might be appropriate to ignore the app, in contrast to official advice.

In the week up to 7 July more than 500,000 alerts were sent to app users who had been in close contact with someone with Covid-19, a rise of almost 50 per cent on the previous week.

Restaurateur Kent Barker said his business is dealing with absenteeism of up to a fifth, and believes it is “only a matter of time” before he is forced to close restaurant doors. Some restaurants have already cut lunch services in a bid to tackle a staff crisis already raging because of Brexit and Covid.

He said: “the government has not thought this through and our industry is left to muddle its way through the best we can. It especially hurt to hear that those at the top of government were contemplating exempting themselves from isolation.”

Joe Moore, founder of Crust Bros pizzerias, said the double threat of the NHS app and the Track and Trace teams would send the hospitality industry “back to lockdown in all but name”.

Here’s what they had to say in full.

AM Dupee, owner of Temaki in Brixton

“Freedom day is a long time coming but many people are still very reticent about going out as they had previously. The government’s language is never clear and they’ve proven to be completely unreliable and inconsistent.”

Marcello Bernardi, co-owner of The Italian Greyhound, Marylebone

“As we are such a small team, we have to face the precarious reality that our ability to operate safely and not overwhelm an already stretched team literally hangs in the balance by some fairly crude geolocation tech. And so often, hospitality bears the brunt of the issue where we are just expected to get on with it… talk about challenging, uncharted territory.”

Kent Barker, restaurateur, Eight Stony Street, Frome, Somerset, and Wilding

“We are experiencing unprecedented levels of absenteeism, firstly due to the ‘pingdemic’, secondly to people who are using it as an excuse due to the amazing weather, and thirdly due to the already well documented staff shortages due to Brexit. 

“This is putting the whole system under huge strain – it feels like it’s only a matter of time before we are going to have to shut certain days, to keep enough staff available for busy shifts that are understaffed due to  aforementioned shortages. 

“Last week we were at various points coping with over 20 per cent of staff off due to isolation. This, coupled with the other well documented staff shortages means we are under unprecedented pressures. If it doesn’t get better soon, we will be losing more and more turnover due to forced closures resulting from these issues. 

“Once again, the government has not thought this through and our industry is left to muddle its way through the best we can. It especially hurt to hear that those at the top of government were contemplating exempting themselves from isolation!

“Our staff do lateral flow tests every day, and we are doing everything in our power to make our staff and customers feel safe. We’re seeing lots of friends at fellow restaurants having to close for several days, which is devastating to businesses and makes a huge financial impact. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep our guests and staff safe, whilst also trying to ensure we don’t have to close.”

Matt Grech-Smith, Swingers

“We welcome the end to restrictions, but is this really the end? I think that our team is struggling to celebrate today as we have the very uneasy feeling that, with surging infection rates, there could be another damaging lockdown on the horizon.”

John Devitt, co-founder of Koya

“My vent would be the ridiculous timing of 16 August for change in the self isolating rules. With the opening up, increased numbers and the ‘pingdemic’ we are working our way to a virtual lockdown with reduced customers and reduced staff and no support. Scotland and Wales are earlier on the changes and England should be too. Why wait?”

Joe Moore, founder of Crust Bros pizzerias 

“The overriding frustration for me comes from the slowness of government over every decision since Feb 2020. The failure to delay the import of the delta variant, amongst a hundred other decisions, means we are now in a worse situation than the rest of Europe again, in spite of the vaccine success. 

“We should be celebrating Freedom Day, but Track and Trace and ‘Pingdemic’ mean that we are effectively heading back to lockdown in all but name, whilst Boris get’s his photo-op and he will blame the scientists later. It’s a shambles.”

Amar Takhar, co-owner at Angelina (Dalston) and Golden Gai (Soho)

“I think that the NHS app has done wonders to slow the spread of Covid and we are fully grateful for it, but it presents a huge challenge over the next few months as cases rise and fully vaccinated workers in short demand will miss a lot of days of work when we’re already short staffed. It also presents the challenge of intermittent closures (after being closed for so long) for which there is no financial support.”

Razak Helalat, Black Rock Restaurant Group, Burnt Orange and The Salt Room (Brighton) and The Coal Shed (Brighton and London)

“It’s important to reinforce the idea of respectful mask wearing. You wear a mask to protect others, and others wear a mask to protect you. We are keeping masks in our businesses to protect our team and ensure guests still feel safe to dine out while cases might still be on the rise. 

“We encourage guests to wear masks if they feel better doing so, but don’t feel we could make it mandatory or enforce it with customers. We do welcome the return of our normal seating layouts; our industry has suffered so much during Covid, we need to be able to operate at normal capacities for the businesses to make money.  

“We have definitely suffered from the pingdemic, it’s difficult for staff who want to be back, finally earning again. For the businesses it makes it impossible to trade without the staff. Although the best thing about the hospitality sector and our suppliers has been the drive to innovate and adapt quickly over the past year, we are all trying hard to make it work and stay open in the safest way possible. 

“We would like to see the same done with the NHS app, it needs to be improved so businesses can operate without further disruption and provide great service.”

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