Tuesday 1 December 2020 6:22 am

Wanted: Someone to take charge and save hospitality this Christmas

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

The excitement is building, and it’s so close now: lockdown is about to be lifted, and at midnight tomorrow we will all slot into our allotted tiers. 

London will be in a freshly toughened Tier 2, with shops reopening and pubs and restaurants allowed to admit customers — but under complicated limitations. 

A few lucky souls in the south west will frolic in the liberties of Tier 1, while many more will find little change from the present lockdown, as they are in Tier 3.

Read more: Retailers allowed to open 24 hours over Christmas period, says minister

The government, as though belatedly realising the impact of its own restrictions, has announced some attempts to relieve the pressures on critical, beleaguered sectors. Retail, having taken a savage beating in the first lockdown, has pled its case, pointing to the importance of the pre-Christmas period as part of its overall annual strategy. It is now December, and shops are terrified that they will not be able to get customers over the threshold in sufficient numbers to make good their losses.

Meanwhile hospitality, the fourth biggest employer in the UK accounting, directly and indirectly, for around six million jobs, is in dire straits. 

Even under Tier 2, households will not be allowed to mix indoors, and patrons may only drink in pubs if they are consuming a “substantial meal” — the meaning of which is being hotly debated.

With Downing Street insisting that customers would have to drink up when they had finished eating and that a Scotch egg doesn’t count as a meal, publicans (yes, I have to write these words) are arguing over the legal definitions of “substantial” and “finished”. A cynical observer might think that the regulations had not been drafted with much thought.

What has the government done? Yesterday housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced that shops in England would be able to open round the clock in the run-up to Christmas, offering the delights of a 3.00am Primark visit to severe shopaholics. How much that will actually help retailers who have just lost a month of their busiest season, including the much-hyped Black Friday, is debatable. 

There seems to be even less sympathy in Whitehall for the hospitality sector. Desperate businesses are warning that continuing Tier 3 will be their death knell, while others have said that even the strictures of Tier 2 are going to present insurmountable financial challenges. 

So-called “wet pubs” (focused on drink only) cannot reopen, and unless there is widespread flouting of the rules, even pubs serving food  will find their customer base much reduced, as will restaurants. 

The Prime Minister (himself not a huge fan of drinking out), is promising more generous grants to hospitality. But no matter how many times industry voices like Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, and others point to the safety measures the sector has introduced, their calls seem to fall on deaf ears.

Retail and hospitality — entrepreneurs, small business owners, boardroom denizens, money-makers — should be a natural Tory constituency. Yet they feel alone, abandoned and in some cases betrayed. 

What’s gone wrong? One answer may be that no-one seems to be in charge. Jenrick, tainted by scandal and devoid of charisma or gravitas, has some locus as minister in charge of housing and local government. Alok Sharma, the business secretary who is barely a household name in his own department, has a foot in the ring. Mark Robinson is chair of the High Streets Task Force, but that is a quango with a longer-term brief. 

No one is explicitly in charge of the whole retail and leisure picture, encompassing high-street shops, shopping malls, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, which all have in common a pressing need: in-person custom.

What this sector desperately needs is a unifying, dedicated figure to listen, react and help. Maybe a senior non-departmental minister like Penny Mordaunt or Michael Gove; maybe a business-minded peer brought in for the job, like Baroness Brady or Lord Hayward. 

Be it politician or tsar, there needs to be a coordinating figure. Otherwise government assistance will continue to be sporadic, slapdash, and slipshod.

Read more: It’s closing time for the nation’s pubs and bars — perhaps for good

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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