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As Government Moots Closure of Restaurants, Pubs, and Bars, Hospitality Waits for the Science

It’s increasingly clear that the “it’s not happening in hospitality” line isn’t going to work

Closed restaurant in Soho with a mural of a woman’s face behind stacked chairs
A new tier system could see restaurants shut down for several weeks
Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Here it goes again, again. As U.K. coronavirus cases continue to rise, new government COVID-19 restrictions could shut down hospitality businesses for “a few weeks” in the areas of the country currently worst-affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. In another of its signature “leak the plan to test the water” moves, the government appears to have briefed the BBC’s Laura Keunssberg on “tighter national rules” that could — emphasis on could — be announced in the next week. Eater has approached the Cabinet Office for comment on the plans.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what the government did before introducing the 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants, pubs, and bars. That curfew, and its deleterious impact on revenue, has become a serious problem for the government in recent days. Restaurants and pubs, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Labour leader Keir Starmer, and even Conservative MPs have urged Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock to prove that they are basing the curfew on epidemiological evidence. It has now been in place for two weeks, with any impact likely to lag at least a week more, but the contention is that there was never science behind it in the first place. On Thursday 8 October, communities secretary Robert Jenrick claimed that it was “commonsensical” that transmission would occur in hospitality venues, echoing anecdotal justifications from Hancock and Johnson and being unclear on whether government planned to publish evidence of this transmission.

Multiple reports last week suggested that the curfew was designed as a “symbolic act,” and the attendant lack of evidence is what is making it a problem for the government. This makes it an effective attack line for restaurants, pubs, bars, and industry bodies lobbying the government to support the industry. The attendant attack line, “it’s not happening in hospitality,” is harder to sustain. Often-cited Public Health England data that puts hospitality in single-digit transmission is a false read of the situation; PHE tracing data puts eating out as the second-most-cited activity after shopping; and suggesting that people “in” hospitality are safer because of social distancing and sanitisation doesn’t account for the fact that going out to eat or drink is an animating factor in engaging in epidemiologically riskier behaviour than staying at home that restaurants cannot control.

But the conclusion of all that, in the absence of a fully effective contact tracing system, is that nobody really knows where transmission is happening outside of households and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that people experiencing transmission outside the home have ... Gone outside the home. This enhances the arbitrariness of the curfew — in which people in previously managed environments spill out into unmanaged environments, in volume and simultaneously — which is straightforwardly counterintuitive to risk management and has therefore been such an effective attack line. The reality is that no government is going to close supermarkets or schools before it closes restaurants and pubs. That needle is not going to move. But governments might withdraw a widely unpopular, unsubstantiated policy that indiscriminately targets one sector without proof of efficacy.

As bad as the curfew has been, reopening, closing, and reopening again would be an altogether different proposition. The significant investment required to make a restaurant COVID-secure, plus the financial strain of not taking revenue for several months, is something many restaurants can just about withstand and something many more could not. The financial strain of making a restaurant COVID-secure, not taking revenue for several months, and then not taking revenue again — even for several weeks — could be terminal.

And any temporary closures would also have to consider the following reopening. The timeline mooted by the BBC would take restaurants into late October and early November, just a week before the furlough scheme is set to expire and just a week after new job support measures based on “viable jobs” — in which people can work one-third of their hours — come in. Asking restaurants to then reopen, in the state which those that have reopened are in now, with job support measures that rest on viability, would also likely be terminal — especially if the curfew is still in place.

The lease forfeiture moratorium extension to the end of 2020 at least buys some time on rent. It also doesn’t change the eventual rent bill, unless restaurants are able to reach deals with their landlords. And finally, the hospitality sector as a whole was hit hardest economically by the pandemic. New restrictions that centre on it would only exacerbate this. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, is pushing for a return to a full furlough scheme and additional financial support in the event of any new hospitality lockdown.

Currently, London is not as badly hit as northern regions of England, and would likely not fall under the level of transmission set for enforcing hospitality closures. But with the curfew still in place and uncertainty about what these new measures will look like, hospitality businesses are still being asked to curtail revenue and hours without scientific reason why.