Tom Talbot offers an insider's view of the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality sector.
Hospitality in the UK has grown by around 20% over the last five years, generating roughly £66bn a year (2016) for the UK economy. Does the Government really support the industry or is it just another pawn in the politics of a pandemic?
Plunged into national lockdown, the sector shut down overnight, leaving roughly 3 million people anxious about their future. “How am I going to pay rent? For food? My bills?” All common questions. The Government was quick to announce a furlough scheme, 80% of our pay. Great! It’s not like we are already some of the lowest paid in the country, just about able to get by on our normal wage. Nonetheless, this was a relief, for those of us who were able to access the scheme. I work for a big Pub Co, which meant I received furlough pay, many were not so lucky. While furlough covers the money received by employees, employers are obliged to pay tax and NI contributions for their employees. Many independent pubs have been struggling for years. Locals are rural, quiet and quaint, their weekly takings are roughly 85% less than in city centres, but beer, food and staff cost the same. Unable to cover the cost of furlough, many pubs were forced to close making many unemployed and heartbroken. Running a pub requires blood sweat and tears, sometimes quite literally. Some people lost everything.
July 4th. Lucky to survive the lockdown, hospitality re-opened, not quite knowing what to expect. Two weeks earlier we received a vague set of rules and guidelines from the Government on how to make our businesses ‘Covid Safe’. Each establishment had its own interpretations. Households could mix indoors, no masks, no formal track and trace. This was a disaster waiting to happen.
‘Eat out to help out’, what a great idea? The industry welcomed this Government initiative, it was great for business in the short term. The government encouraged people to go out for 50% off food, it was so successful for business, that many companies extended it for September. People out and about again, seeing friends, spending money and already taking liberties. It's no wonder cases started to rise again.
With cases on the rise, there was a change in Government strategy. Just as disastrous and more confusing than the last. While the government started to ratchet up the scaremongering, they proceeded to encourage people to go to work and the pub ‘to keep the economy going.’ Three tiers of restrictions led to last-minute hastily put-together plans for maintaining the business. Masks were now mandatory, a small victory for science, but not for the staff who had to enforce the new rules. We are all well aware people come to pubs for drinks not rules. “Tosser” and “Twat” were some of the more polite names I was called on a regular basis. Many in the industry were verbally abused and sometimes physically attacked. We were simply trying to enforce the Government rules to keep us open. Throughout the pandemic, the police were reluctant to help with enforcement, which only encouraged guests and some businesses to bend the rules as much as possible.
A combination of guests not wanting to follow rules and Government scaremongering our businesses started resembling ghost towns. Last-minute changes to restrictions, a rise in cases and the end of furlough just added to the confusion and anxiety felt by the industry and the nation. Many businesses had to close. Even big Pub Cos such as Greene King had to close pubs to keep afloat. The businesses lucky enough to stay open had little financial reassurances from the Government, the new alternative for furlough was worse for businesses and employees. There was little choice for the industry.
Reducing working hours left staff anxious about paying rent. Many including myself had to sign new contracts with fewer hours so the company could afford to pay redundancy ‘if’ necessary. Another worry to add to the list. Inevitably I caught Covid. As a diabetic, this was scary, not only for my health but furlough ended the next day, and I'd be forced to take sick pay which barely covers my rent. Too late for those who had already lost their jobs, the Government announced an extension to the furlough scheme and a lockdown.
Leaving businesses unsure of the circumstances in which they'd be able to open again, the Government was last minute about announcing the updated restrictions for coming out of lockdown. London was Tier 2 (Tier 3 in old money). We had TWO days to stock the shelves, get our businesses ready and decide what constitutes a ‘substantial meal’, forced to bend the definition just to make little money. TWO weeks later, we moved to Tier 3 forcing businesses to close again. Dismantling an empty pub is hard work and heartbreaking. TWO days later: Tier 4, Lockdown for a better word. Soon followed a national lockdown, an industry furloughed again, hoping the government does it right this time.
Tom Talbot is the Secretary of the Disability Advocacy Group and Events Officer for the Environment Network. Tom tweets at @tajtalbot.