The banging of pots and pans echoed through London’s Westminster this week. But it had nothing to with rowdy chefs in Parliament restaurants. Outside in Parliament Square, hundreds of hospitality workers, including big name chefs and restaurateurs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Jason Atherton, and Fergus and Margot Henderson, gathered for the first ever HospoDemo, organised in response to an evolving situation that many say threatens the very existence of UK hospitality.
“I'm very worried,” says Rachel Harty, the event’s organiser. “The UK's world-beating hospitality industry is part of the fabric of our society. We've already lost some incredible businesses, and if things don't change, we will lose too many more, never to be seen again.”
For an industry that is already reeling from lockdown, the introduction of a ‘Rule of six’ banning social gatherings of more than six people, and a 10pm curfew – a move that left many scratching their heads (as well as packed streets at kicking-out time) – it’s the UK’s new three-tier Covid prevention strategy that could cumulatively prove too much for many businesses.
Introduced in mid-October, the three-tier system classifies areas based on Covid infection rates – tier one is classed as ‘medium’ risk, tier two ‘high’ and tier three ‘very high’. Under tier two and tier three restrictions, households are banned from mixing. So, no meeting mum and dad for Sunday lunch (unless they’re part of your ‘support bubble’), or an old friend for dinner. There’s also confusion over whether working lunches are still permitted, with some restaurants exploiting a loophole that allows freelancers to conduct business meetings inside. Cue an avalanche of cancellations.
“Business lunches are so important, we need more lunch trade,” says Anna Haugh of Myrtle restaurant in London, which is currently under tier two restrictions. “I spend more time with my work colleagues than my partner, but I'm not allowed to go for lunch or dinner with any of them or socialise with them. It doesn’t make sense,” she says by way of an example. “I’m fighting to keep the restaurant afloat.”
Many see this as the latest slap in the face for an industry that contributes 5% of GDP and employs over three million people in the UK. A recent survey found as many as 750,000 jobs could be lost in the sector. What’s more, research suggests the UK’s hospitality businesses have been responsible for just a small proportion of Covid outbreaks.
“Incidents of Covid linked to eating and drinking businesses are a tiny amount,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality. “In fact, recent news images show that measures such as the curfew are clearly having a negative impact in supporting public health. Kicking out every customer at 10 o’clock on the dot has not only stripped out shifts and taken revenue away from outlets, it has created dangerous pinch points as customers all leave at once.”
The curfew remains for now, despite calls from the likes of London Mayor Sadiq Khan to scrap it. But the government is listening, it seems, having just announced additional support for businesses in tier two areas - businesses that had previously been left in a no-man’s-land of reduced demand, with little help. Under the new Job Support Scheme, which replaces the existing furlough scheme at the beginning of November, the government will fund up to 62% of wages for hours not worked. This is alongside the 67% that had already been pledged for businesses in tier three areas that are forced to close (in terms of hospitality that means pubs and bars that don’t serve meals, not restaurants). Both below the 80% the government provided under the furlough scheme. English councils will also be able to provide grants to restaurants, hotels and B&Bs under tier two restrictions.
Event organiser Rachel Harty with St. John chef Fergus Henderson at the HospoDemo in London
It could be too late for some, however. “The majority of restaurants, high-end investment, big teams, in built-up areas that are expensive – they're just going to be absolutely decimated,” says Sam Buckley, chef-owner of the acclaimed Where the Light Gets In, in Stockport in Greater Manchester. The city is currently under tier three restrictions, and though his business is in a better place than many due to low rent and just 26 covers that he never turns anyway, he’s losing patience with those at the top. “We're all doing our best to keep safe and keep responsible. But the messing about, the indecision… I think most people in the country think it’s a joke now.”
What’s more, Anna Haugh feels the public may already have become exasperated with the rules around eating out. “Now it's like we're changing how people eat, we're changing the times that they can eat. We're controlling people's lives in a way that will make people eventually kind of go, ‘There’s too much logistics to think about with going out to eat, I'd rather have people in my house.’ We all know that lots of people are entertaining in their homes,” she says.
But the industry, as ever, pulls together in times of crisis, and initiatives are underway to try and help tip the balance. A petition has been launched for the creation of a Minister of Hospitality, which the UK currently doesn’t have. At the time of writing it has nearly 35,000 signatures; if it reaches 100,000 it will be considered for debate in Parliament. AHospitality Gin has also been created, with 100% of profits going to support UK hospitality and its people. And if the situation doesn’t improve rapidly, we can expect more protests.
“While it’s encouraging that the government has listened to us and responded quickly on tier two, let us be clear: the announcement [on additional support] is just a small step in the right direction,” says Hartley. “The Job Support Scheme for hospitality workers in tiers two and three needs to go further. Hospitality operators need higher grants, the introduction of rent relief and an urgent review of the 10pm curfew, to avoid an avalanche of insolvencies and associated job losses.”
Otherwise the pots and pans will be coming out again.
This article was updated on the 27 October to reflect the changing situation relating to business meetings inside restaurants.