Des Gunewardena is Chairman and CEO of D&D London, the restaurant group behind brands including Bluebird, Angler, 14 Hills and Coq d’Argent. Here he lays out where the government has failed the hospitality sector and gives a plan for how it could still salvage something from the most important month of the year.
So we’ve finally had confirmation from Boris that lockdown will end on 2 December. At first we all breathed a sigh of relief, especially with the scrapping of the 10pm curfew, to be replaced by 10pm last orders, which was a victory for common sense.
But that’s where the good news ended. December is by a country mile the most important month for restaurants. In common with many hospitality businesses, we at D&D make 25 to 30 per cent of our profits in December. So we were hoping and praying for some relaxation of dining regulations and in particular the single household rule for indoor dining. We didn’t get it. Instead what we got was a tightening of restrictions.
This December you may be able to dine at Bluebird and Quaglino’s with your immediate family or your housemates. But you won’t be able to celebrate with friends and colleagues. Not only is the office Christmas party off but also dining in small groups is likely to be banned. This is an absolute disaster for us as a company and a kick in the teeth for our customers.
We have had to endure a year of battling Covid through lockdowns and a continual barrage of dining restrictions – “rule of 6”, 10pm curfew, single household dining, social distancing, masks, hand sanitisers, temperature checks and so on. We have invested a fortune in PPE and trained our staff. And for a couple of happy months in the summer we traded well with busy restaurants and no significant rise in Covid cases.
And yet here we are after a month of lockdown looking down the barrel at a very difficult December. We in pubs and restaurants are paying a stratospheric price for the government’s failure to deal effectively with the virus. And it may get even worse. If London, Leeds and Manchester find themselves in Tier 3 we might not be able to open at all!
So in a week where we have all been toasting the soon-to-arrive vaccines, why are we having all this further misery inflicted on us? Everybody in the restaurant trade wants to suppress the virus and follow the science. But Public Health England’s weekly reports indicate very clearly that Covid infections are not taking place in restaurants.
Ever since I started looking at this government data, restaurants and other food serving venues have been reported to account between two and three per cent of infections. This compares to 20 per cent or more in each of schools and universities, workplaces and care homes.
Perhaps the government doubts these statistics, so why not consult Track and Trace? Can you guess how many Covid cases we have had notified to us by the NHS app? A big fat zero, after serving more than 700,000 customers. We believe and continue to protest that restaurants are Covid-safe environments.
We have repeatedly asked the government for data to support its measures. All we are offered is some circumstantial association data and phrases like “obviously if you socialise more in pubs and restaurants then there are going to be more Covid infections”. So why didn’t that happen through July, August and the start of September?
At least I’m not alone in asking these questions – 70 of the government’s own ministers are asking the same question this week. They’ve demanded an analysis of the benefits in terms of reduced hospital admissions and deaths compared to the considerable human and economic costs of the measures proposed. They are unlikely to get this analysis. I doubt there is one.
So what should the government have done? Subject to strict implementation of Covid procedures with large fines for non-compliance I would have allowed people to have a measured but decent December. Friends and colleagues should have been allowed to celebrate together subject to the “rule of 6”. I’d be conscious of the risk of Covid cases rising and be ready to implement a short lockdown in January if necessary.
A January lockdown is infinitely preferable in terms of both the financial impact on the hospitality industry and the well being of people. We all deserve a decent Christmas after the thoroughly miserable 2020 we’ve had to endure.
Looking forward, it’s vital the government accepts responsibility and fully compensates the hospitality industry for the massive losses it has had to suffer. The VAT and business rates reliefs must be extended to the end of 2021 at least. And the government must intervene to deal with unpaid rents – the elephant in the room which will drive many businesses under if not resolved.
Much of the industry will not survive. Those that remain are vital in rebuilding the economy post-Covid. Pubs and restaurants are a major employer mostly of young people. They are also hugely important in the massive task ahead of revitalising our currently moribund city centres.