“It was, finally, for everyone, a matter of waiting. You waited and you waited, for the hospital, the doctor, the plumber, the madhouse, the jail, papa death himself… The citizens of the world ate food and watched TV and worried about their jobs or lack of the same, while they waited.”
That’s from Charles Bukowski’s novel Women, but it feels topical today. Anyone else fed up with waiting? Anyone else frustrated, impatient, angry and worried about waiting?
I’m not superb at waiting around at the best of times, so I have no idea how I would feel if I was an operator in the hospitality industry. I can’t empathise, only sympathise, but I imagine that I’d be going out of my mind with so many vital issues that would affect my future swirling around the air.
At this point in the coronavirus crisis we find ourselves in an unusual situation where the frantic last 12 weeks have slowed to a glacial crawl where the crucial issues that could break so many operators have been distilled down to four: rent, safety, the JRS and ongoing financial support. And the government has, so far, failed to take meaningful action on any. Instead it talks, it delays, it throws out bones.
You could argue the JRS has been generous, in some respects perhaps too generous, but if things remain the same it’s going to count for little when it ends in November and mass redundancies follow.
When it comes to rent, the existing code is toothless. It’s a gentle cajoling, when what is required is legislation that orders mandatory behaviour, or a mandatory break, in order to save many businesses from going under, and that applies to landlords and tenants.
When it comes to safety, everyone in the hospitality industry is aware of the difference a reduction on the existing two metre rule would have on economic viability. The government announced it was going to review the two metre debate over the weekend, but it already did that once before and has failed to reveal its findings.
Now it has said the new review will take weeks, but there are only three weeks until 4 July when the industry can reopen, though that date remains unconfirmed.
So we don’t definitively know when the industry can reopen, we don’t know what will be required in terms of safety guidelines. What an impotent position, on top of everything else.
But we can have a good guess at both, because we know the 4 July is likely and we know what it’s likely to mean in terms of PPE and hygiene standards.
Spacing is more complex, operationally and financially. We can hope for a reduction, but broad scientific opinion remains that two metres is safer than one, and that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately for hospitality, if not perhaps for the health of the nation, what is already changing is the government’s stance on science, because practical financial issues are now firmly in play.
The government has always insisted it’s following the science, but where it was once useful for the government to explain away the immense introduction of lockdown by pointing to the science, the science is now incompatible with the health of the economy, which has tanked in tandem with the government throwing open the coffers.
It always comes down to the economy, so the chances are that some level of reduction will be introduced. But still, we wait.
The uncertain nature of what is happening in the UK is in sharp contrast to what is happening elsewhere in Europe. Speaking to MCA, UK Hospitality CEO Kate Nicholls said the countries with the “cleanest and quickest recovery” have been the ones that have set out a clear timetable on reopening.
“I think part of the problem we’ve got in the UK is that we’ve been very vague,” she said.
“If you look at France, they’ve been very clear about a reopening date. In Germany you’ve got very quick interventions in the market, both in terms of furlough loans but also in terms of lifting the lockdown. Again, they had a clear programme, they said it two to three weeks in advance, they did it outdoor first, then it moved indoors, and they’ve incentivised customers to go out. So those are the countries that we should be looking towards if we’re wanting to see a swift recovery.”
She also believes, in the absence of official guidelines, the best advice is to press on and take your best guess as to what is likely to be involved in reorganising your operation based on existing knowledge. In short, don’t sweat the arrival of official guidelines and get moving so you don’t miss out when the 4 July rolls around.
So in terms of rent and safety, the clarity over safety is unclear, and the government needs to toughen up the stance on rents. Which leaves the future of the JRS and ongoing financial support as operators try to reopen.
Both need to be addressed, a solution needs to be delivered. Otherwise the government is only going to end up shelling out via a different economic mechanic.
The 4 July looms large as a deadline, but it’s not the real one. We can expect it to be extended, but at the moment the rent moratorium expires on the 26 June. The JRS comes to an end at the end of October.
Of course the industry wants clarity about reopening dates and guidelines. It’s symptomatic of the way this entire situation has been handled that they don’t. But there are bigger issues involved. The 4 July is an arbitrary date, rent and redundancies look set in stone. Clarity is required, but there is a darker storm ahead.
A darker storm lies in wait
“It was, finally, for everyone, a matter of waiting. You waited and you waited, for the hospital, the doctor, the plumber, the madhouse, the jail, papa death himself… The citizens of the world ate food and watched TV and worried about their jobs or lack of the same, while they waited.” That’s from Charles Bukowski’s novel Women, but it feels topical today. Anyone else fed up with waiting? Anyone else frustrated, impatient, angry and worried about waiting?