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U.K. Restaurants React With Fury and Dismay at Government’s Coronavirus Inaction

Boris Johnson is advising Londoners to “avoid” restaurants while not offering restaurant workers financial support

A London dining room with tables marked out for coronavirus social distancing
Tables marked for social distancing at Jolene in Newington Green

The London restaurant community has reacted with anger and frustration at the U.K. Government’s new proposals to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, as it continues to hit the industry with devastating effect.

Prime minister Boris Johnson yesterday evening announced that the U.K.’s social distancing measures would be intensified, strongly advising the public against visiting pubs, restaurants, theatres, and other social leisure spaces; critically though, the government fell short of enforcing the closure of those venues and did not state for how long the measures would remain in place.

The restaurant industry says this policy leaves it limbo, making the decision to close a moral one at the discretion of individual business owners, in the absence of the necessary financial support to make that decision. Faced with the inexorable and dramatic reduction in custom, the decision to close will be forced on the great many of restaurants, pubs, and cafes in London.

The hospitality sector, which employs three million workers and generates £73 billion to the U.K. economy, is the country’s third largest industry.

Last night, the body which represents the industry, UK Hospitality said: “The government has effectively shut the hospitality industry without any support, and this announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good, and hundreds of thousands of job losses.”

It added that the situation was already critical and would be terminal if no rescue plan was announced imminently. “Over the past few weeks, the industry has suffered unprecedented drops in visits and many business are already on their knees. This latest advice leaves the industry in limbo with no recourse to insurance.”

“The government must act now to stop them going under and protect the people’s jobs. These venues play a unique role as community hubs and it’s in all our interests to protect and preserve them so they are still there once we emerge from this crisis.

“We need immediate and far-reaching support from the government, and meaningful business continuity measures.”

That call was echoed by the the shadow digital, culture and media secretary, Tracy Brabin, who said: “It’s unacceptable that the Tories seem to be prioritising the needs of the insurance industry in what could be an existential crisis for our sector.

“The prime minister must urgently clarify that theatres, music venues, and other organisations in the creative industries affected by his statement can claim insurance. The same goes for the UK’s incredible hospitality sector. These industries are part of the lifeblood of the nation and Labour will fight for their future.”

When asked why the government stopped short of the mandated closure of these businesses, a government spokesperson told Eater: “As the Prime Minister, Chief Medical Officer, and Chief Scientific Adviser acknowledge, the social distancing measures we have set out will have considerable impacts on businesses and society.

“We made clear in last week’s Budget that we stand ready to support businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to help them deal with the effects of the virus. We will continue to engage with business to discuss what support they need in this challenging period.”

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner called the government’s move “staggeringly reckless.” Former chancellor George Osborne called on the government to launch a scheme, worth hundreds of billions of pounds, to underwrite bank loans to businesses in order to “help them and their employees through this crisis.”

While the enforced closure from the government would be welcomed by many in the industry, the recourse to insurance is thought to provide mainly for medium-to-long-term relief; what many need in the short-term is emergency cash-flow support. The industry is therefore calling on the chancellor to redouble its efforts today in providing VAT, PAYE, rent, and rate relief to businesses across the industry. And to provide a broad package of financial stimulus, which includes a worker support, for an industry facing an existential crisis.

All eyes will be on the prime minister’s daily press conference, due to take place this afternoon with the chancellor by his side, where it is expected the government will announce a raft of new economic measures designed to support the industry in light of the new advice against visiting restaurants.

Many fear the government will not go far enough, that irreparable damage has already been inflicted on an industry with notoriously precarious revenue streams and extremely fine margins. The hope today is that enough can be offered to prevent a complete collapse of the hospitality industry as London knows it.