Food industry reeling from news of 10pm Covid-19 curfew
In a bid to slow the onslaught of a second wave of Covid-19, the UK Government has today announced a 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants. The measures are being put into place amid fears that if the cabinet does not act the UK could see 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by the middle of October and 200 deaths a day by mid-November. Scientists say the move may encourage people to stick to social distancing rules.
In yet another ill-considered decision that has infuriated the hospitality industry, the powers that be have judged that from Thursday evening all pubs, bars and eateries must close at 10pm – doors, not last orders – because, as Boris Johnson pointed out apparently without irony, “simplicity is paramount”. The Prime Minister added that establishments must provide table service only, and buying drinks at the bar will be banned.
Predictably, the sector’s bosses are incensed. Many have pointed out that dinner reservations are routinely made for after 8 or 9pm, and most question the logic of a curfew, asking “does the virus only come out post-10pm?”.
Chef Gregory Marchand, owner of Frenchie, Covent Garden, has expressed his concern: “Our business relies heavily on bookings made around and after 8pm, so this will inevitably affect our trade.” Director of the Rick Stein Group Jack Stein has also weighed in, noting that “as of today, we are going to have to contact over 900 customers who have reservations in our pub and restaurants to rearrange their bookings, which means disappointment for some, many cancellations and more lost revenue for us after months of closure”.
Many venues are protesting the timing of the new restrictions, having only just started to get back on their feet after the initial closures earlier this year. Stuart Procter, COO of The Stafford Collection, is among the critics: “It’s baffling that the Government would spend £522m on the brilliant Eat Out to Help Out scheme last month, encouraging the British public to eat out as much as possible, and now we are back to being enemy number one. Thanks to the scheme, we’ve taken staff off furlough to cope with the demand of customers – what do we do with them now? Once again we’ve seen a huge change of strategy […] As an industry, we had just started to claw our way back from a catastrophic start to 2020″.
Some in the industry support the initiative on a local basis, in areas that are seeing regional spikes in cases, but the wisdom of a blanket national rule makes little sense. As Stein points out, “the vast majority of our restaurants are in Cornwall, an area where the infection rate is still very low, so it’s difficult to understand the reasoning of a nationwide curfew. I think they are right to impose tighter restrictions on areas where there is a dangerously high rate, however that isn’t us, so it’s a tough pill to swallow”. Des Gunewardena, CEO and co-founder of D&D London, agrees: “Public Health England is reporting that yes, Covid infections are rising in the North East and North West of England, but they are apparently not rising in London and the South East. So why impose a curfew?”.
The police are empowered to enforce these rules, and businesses will be expected to do so as well. Drinkers and diners who do not comply will be fined an initial £200, with the figure doubling with each offence to a maximum of £3,200. Businesses that fail to ensure their premises adhere to the rules will also face fines, and are now legally required to collect details for Track and Trace, whereas previously this was encouraged only as guidance. Marcos Fernandez, MD of Arros QD and Iberica, suggests the curfew is “clearly the knee-jerk reaction of a government who can’t implement an effective track and trace system, and it is hospitality that is being used as a scapegoat”. Gunewardena drives this point home with official figures, stating that “Public Health England’s own statistics clearly indicate that the recent significant increase in Covid infections is in care homes, schools and workplaces. It is not in pubs and restaurants. In fact, less than 5% of infections are taking place in pubs and restaurants”.
Needless to say, the hospitality sector is set to take another devastating hit as a result of the UK Government’s flawed approach to tackling the Covid-19 crisis, and as Marchand suggests, this may be “the final nail in the coffin”.
Photo: Filippo L’Astorina