Finally, some good news. Ish. Positive things have happened over the last couple of days, but everything is relative. The sheer scale of lockdown, and its devastating impact on eating and drinking out, means simply being able to open for business feels like a big win, even though victory remains a long way away.
Of course that negative impact means the base has never been so low. And it’s understandable that perceptions of what makes good news have changed so radically.
The creeping nature of the way this coronacrisis has developed means conversations about things like staying two metres away from other people feels entirely normal, when three months ago the same conversation would have seemed ridiculous. Such is life today.
But at least now there are some positives to focus on, like the confirmation of the 4 July and the reduction in social distancing. The sector remains in the mire, but both announcements are welcome.
Restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaways also have a long awaited new code of conduct that enables them to plan properly for the months ahead, even if it does sum up the surreal nature of these times by setting out ways to prevent employees and customers catching a potentially fatal virus while enjoying a pie and a pint.
Perhaps the first thing to note is the semantic flexibility so often prevalent in official documents like these. It’s peppered with words like ‘encourage’ rather than ‘enforce’, ‘should’ rather than ‘must’, ‘limiting’ rather than ‘eliminating’, and so on.
So this is guidance, not rules, and in that sense it’s a pragmatic approach to what is a wildly unpredictable problem. The deliberately imprecise nature of the rhetoric makes this a missive of best practice rather than draconian legislation, which would be problematic, if not impossible, to enforce. Plus a one size fits all approach would never work for such a diverse sector.
Does that make these guidelines voluntary? Not exactly. It is explicit when it says: “Failure to complete a risk assessment which takes account of covid-19, or completing a risk assessment but failing to put in place sufficient measures to manage the risk of covid-19, could constitute a breach of health and safety law.”
It goes on to say that “serious breaches and failure to comply with enforcement notices can constitute a criminal offence, with serious fines and even imprisonment for up to two years.”
It’s unlikely any responsible operator would end up in that position. Operators are simply being asked to take measures to respect the safety of everyone under these unusual and unfortunate circumstances.
No-one should have a problem with that, especially as not following this best practice risks derailing any progress made so far. As many have made clear, a slide back into lockdown would be worse than the first time around, and Rishi Sunak has indicated that there will be no extensions to any supportive measures, including the JRS, whatever happens next.
And the vast majority of the guidelines are predictable and will come as no surprise. But one problematic paragraph stands out.
“The opening up of the economy following the covid-19 outbreak is being supported by NHS Test and Trace,” it reads.
“You should assist this service by keeping a temporary record of your customers and visitors for 21 days, in a way that is manageable for your business, and assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed.”
Again, like the rest of the guidelines it’s advisory. But taken literally, if I want to visit a restaurant, pub, bar, even a takeaway, under these guidelines an operator should request my details and I will need to provide them. Normal for a restaurant, abnormal for a pub or a takeaway.
Again, taken literally, Track and Trace means if someone else was in that establishment at the same time as me and they come down with the coronavirus, I may be contacted and ordered to self-isolate for 14 days – which means not being able to leave the house “for any reason” according to the NHS website.
You could argue I’m interpreting this too literally, and again this is guidance not rules, but if operators and customers do comply with the guidelines as they stand, that means if I go to KFC for a Mighty Bucket for One, I will need to provide contact details which could result in me being forced back into lockdown.
As much as we all fancy a Hot Wing, that’s a genuine risk that could put many people off heading to somewhere like the pub, or a takeaway like KFC. Is a cold draught pint or an Original Recipe drumstick worth risking 14 days in isolation?
Of course it is, but maybe that’s just me. And yes, “in a way that is manageable for your business” means some operators may record names and contact details on a casual basis, pen and paper even, so a false name and a fake number may suffice.
But in other countries, and there is no reason it couldn’t be introduced here, customers have to scan a QR code upon entry with their smartphones, which is a less easy method to fool, although admittedly anyone could still find a way around it if they really wanted to. You can pick up a burner phone for less than the price of a Peroni.
Besides, given the government’s technical prowess with Apps so far, the idea they can roll out a universal tech solution across hospitality in the next nine days seems unlikely.
More seriously though, the risks of flouting these guidelines could be severe. The usually ebullient PM was unusually careful to couch the positivity surrounding his announcement with repeated reminders of the threat of a reversal of fortune.
I haven’t heard a single doctor or scientist suggest differently, if anything they are all more cautious than the PM about the risk of lifting lockdown in such a comprehensive fashion. It’s just one of the very real risks to recovery.
So yes, positive things are happening. Yes, the industry will welcome them. But the road ahead is rocky, fraught and long, with pressing issues like rent still to be resolved. It’s good news, but this is just the beginning.
Editorial: Good news, but the road ahead is long
Finally, some good news. Ish. Positive things have happened over the last couple of days, but everything is relative. The sheer scale of lockdown, and its devastating impact on eating and drinking out, means simply being able to open for business feels like a big win, even though victory remains a long way away. Of course that negative impact means the base has never been so low. And it’s understandable that perceptions of what makes good news have changed to such an extent, the creeping nature of the way this coronacrisis has developed