Moving last orders to 9-9.30pm could be calling time on thousands of hospitality businesses

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Moving last orders to 9-9.30pm could be calling time on thousands of hospitality businesses

Related tags lockdown Coronavirus Restaurant Public house

When Rishi Sunak announced in July the Eat Out to Help Out initiative I, like a number of people in the industry, viewed it with an air of scepticism.

Yet with more than 100 million meals sold using the discount, the Chancellor’s rather blunt discount tool captured the imagination of the eating out consumer in a way that many hadn’t anticipated.

And while August wasn’t without its issues - with complaints from restaurateurs of particularly tricky customers, and Thursday lunch service having fewer bookings than Gary Lineker’s football career - for many it proved to be a resounding success, not only putting valuable money into restaurant coffers and instilling confidence in the general public about the safety of going out to eat but demonstrating how vital the hospitality sector is for the British economy.

What a difference a month makes. No sooner has the scheme encouraging people to flock back to restaurants come to an end the Government is backtracking, with hospitality now firmly in its cross-hairs as being responsible for the rise in Coronavirus cases. Yesterday (22 September) Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that evidence points to late night venues, where alcohol has been consumed, as being a root cause of the surge in Coronavirus cases, and thus slapped a 10pm curfew on all hospitality venues starting from tomorrow. This truly is a Government that gives with the one hand and takes away with the other.

But where is this evidence? Public Health England (PHE) figures for week 37 show that hospitality outlets accounted for only 5% of outbreaks by institution in England, compared with 45% for care homes and 21% for education. Moreover, restaurants up and down the country have reported serving thousands of customers since lockdown was lifted with zero cases of Coronavirus being linked to them. As Moor Hall’s Mark Birchall says, people feel safer and secure in his restaurant than they do outside - a sentiment that other restaurants have no doubt experienced.

To slap a 10pm curfew on all hospitality businesses, therefore, is a blinkered move that could cripple an already beleaguered industry, one that the Government just one month before helped to get back on its feet. Many restaurants have made significant steps to operate Covid-secure, safe, clean environments - often at great expense when money is a rare commodity - more so than supermarkets and shops where customers can roam freely touching things at their will, yet are being unfairly punished because some late night drinking venues haven’t been following the rules - or that’s at least what the Government thinks.

For those shrugging their shoulders and questioning what difference a couple of hours makes to businesses, then they should realise it’s a significant one. Many restaurants rely on their dinner trade, especially as lunch covers have been decimated by a lack of people leaving their homes for work, and shorter hours means the loss of entire sittings and a sharp decrease in valuable customer numbers - this against a backdrop of fewer covers in dining rooms anyway because of distancing measures that restaurants have been forced to adhered to.

Speaking at an R200 event we held a few months back, Alex Reilley, co-founder of Loungers, said that the pandemic had brought about a welcome shift in how the hospitality sector is viewed by both the Government and the public. I’m guessing he no longer holds this view, having recently tweeted: “It’s rather beginning to feel like there’s a Boris bus round the corner and hospitality is about to be thrown under it.”

Hospitality should not be held as a scapegoat for the spread of a virus that can be passed from person to person in so many environments. The industry has towed the line with the regulations, with many restaurants taking a lot of time to ensure they opened responsibly, got staff off furlough to help kickstart the economy during August, and fed millions of people, all without accounting to a rise in cases of the virus, according to PHE statistics.

Moving last orders to 9-9.30pm could be calling time on thousands of hospitality businesses.        

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