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Food Service Industries Furlough Highest Proportion of Workers During Coronavirus

Office of National Statistics figures ballast feeling that hospitality has been hardest hit

Coronavirus shuts down London restaurants with empty tables in Soho
Just under 80 percent of food service workers have been furloughed
David Cliff/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The food service and accommodation industries — which includes restaurants, pubs, hotels, and bars — have furloughed the highest proportion of workers under the U.K. coronavirus lockdown, according to the Office for National Statistics.

79.6 percent of workers have been furloughed, with the next highest, the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry, coming in at 67.5 percent, adding ballast to the hospitality industry’s mantra that it has been the first hit and will be the last to reopen. This is the key premise behind its seeking a nine-month rent holiday for businesses in order to stay afloat, and these findings will — while providing a grave reality check — only back that up.

Simultaneously, the ONS found that while U.K. retail sales fell 5.1 percent through March in the steepest decline since 1996, food sales, largely bolstered by online shopping, rose by 10.1 percent, with supermarkets and smaller, specialist food retailers alike seeing grocery and food deliveries spike; alcohol sales from “specialist stores” rose by almost a third with baking supplies not far behind.

The two sets of statistics are the latest benchmark in a sobering, if somewhat clarifying week for the hospitality industry. News that social distancing measures would likely last until December followed confirmation that restaurants and pubs will likely be “last to exit” those measures; analysis showing that diners will likely be wary of visiting restaurants that are able to open intersected with trade body U.K. Hospitality’s first directly submitted plan for a phased reopening, to avoid catastrophic yo-yoing between full lockdown and softer restrictions.

As further data around coronavirus’ impact on the restaurant and food retail industries emerges, the vicissitudes of corona-time and its annihilation of restaurants’ former norm will become even clearer; there will be more pain for businesses, but also more clarity on what they can functionally do. With diners’ minds wary, movements restricted, and finances tightened, a prediction from the retail industry looks prescient for restaurants, too. Lisa Hooker of accountants PwC told BBC News that “Consumers intend to reward more responsible retailers ... Particularly those who looked after their staff, and shop more on their local high streets and with smaller or independent retailers.”

Those distinctions on size might not translate directly from retail to restaurants, given the “big four” supermarkets’ oligopoly on mainstream retail food supply, but they do suggest that as diners confront their own precarity, they will hopefully more clearly recognise that of restaurants, with reliability, proximity, and adaptability leapfrogging newness. More regulars; fewer tryouts. This adaptation, like all the avenues operators face in the coming months, will be easier and cleaner for some than others.

More soon.