The weekend’s press brought more tantalising headlines for the hospitality sector. Government fears of a ‘jobs bloodbath’ if the sector failed to reopen in time for the summer would accelerate an easing of the lockdown for pubs and restaurants, the Sunday Times front page splash optimistically predicted.

Part of that package would include a relaxation of planning controls to allow pubs, cafes and restaurants to use outside places - with tables and chairs extending out onto pavements and town squares.

Whether this is now firm policy or just the Government again using media leaks to test public opinion remains to be seen – and there are as yet no details on a timetable. Call me cynical, but we’ve been here before.

Only last weekend, the media hinted that pubs and restaurants might be allowed to reopen earlier than first suggested – with pub gardens and restaurant terraces earlier still. Many have been pushing that particular case, but as yet no word from Downing Street.

But it’s an argument worth pursuing, as local authorities struggle with the aftermath of rubbish, abandoned tents, barbecues and much worse, left behind as the public headed to the country’s facility-free beaches and beauty spots, before the weather turned.

What can be the rationale, for example, for allowing the public to buy beer and food from a pub window to consume at home or in a nearby park or riverbank, but not in that pub’s own garden, where physical distancing could be enforced, and toilets made available?

As I argued last week in an online opinion piece, Time for some serious gardening, perhaps ministers need reminding why licensed premises exist in the first place? They are licensed so they can be regulated to provide a safe and supervised environment for the sale and consumption of alcohol. At present it seems the public can drink anywhere but.

There is an understandable concern among some pub and bar operators that the restrictions necessary for running coronavirus compliant pubs and bars might cause extra problems for staff especially at the end of an evening – and that might warrant the intervention of the authorities.

No standing rules, pre-booked table-only service, and proper hygiene protocols (and yes adequate toilets) should help to alleviate that risk, alongside capacity-management and active hosting to guide consumers through the new pub, bar or restaurant environment.

The stories around the country, particularly in local media, of police being called out to illegal street and house parties are legion and ought to raise concern. So, getting the public safely back into properly controlled licensed premises would seem a sensible, if not urgent, objective.

Opening up outside areas in pubs and restaurant as soon as possible seems both logical and desirable as a first step towards a wider reopening programme from July 4 – even if not all can benefit and some investment in large umbrellas might be needed.

But operators will have to step up and take on extra responsibility, working with local communities to ensure public places are safe and litter-free if they are to be permitted to trade in them. We need to demonstrate we are part of the solution.

The mood music from Government circles suggests that although helping hospitality is definitely seen as a priority – and much praise for our own trade body UK Hospitality for that – we are still unlikely to see any sites reopening before the already touted July 4 date, despite what we read in the press.

What we are likely to see, we hear, is a wider opening of leisure from that date, including outdoor attractions. But again no-one really knows, so the sector needs to keep up the pressure. The real threat of major job losses across hospitality that the press has picked up on is a powerful card.

The good news is that the hospitality sector has been prominent right across the news media all weekend, starting with Radio 4’s Today Programme at 7am on Saturday. It’s share of voice matches, if not exceeds, any other business sector – or that’s certainly what it feels like.

The fact that business secretary Alok Sharma and culture secretary Oliver Dowden have both spoken out publicly about hospitality’s plight this last week, and the Labour opposition has also taken up hospitality’s cause, speaks volumes for the lobbying powers of our trade organization UK Hospitality.

But there is both nervousness and impatience in the sector, not eased by the lack of clarity coming from Government, despite the supportive words from some ministerial quarters. There are those that understandably want more action.

The long-term health of our pubs, bars and restaurants will depend on the support and stimulus that the wider economy, and not just hospitality specifically, receives. To quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but… you just might find you get what you need.” Let’s hope so. 

 

Topics