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Government’s New Reopening Date for Restaurants Raises More Questions Than It Answers

Moving reopening for some businesses forward to 22 June does not remove the uncertainty felt by many in hospitality

Restaurants and pubs could be allowed to reopen for outdoor service on 22 June
Michaël Protin/Eater London

The government is considering allowing some pubs and restaurants to reopen on 22 June, in a new economy saving plan called “save summer”. The plans, which are supported by six senior ministers including chancellor Rishi Sunak, would allow hospitality businesses to serve customers outdoors, and avoid losing out on a significant portion of summer trade. The Financial Times reports that ministers will discuss the plans at a meeting in Westminster tomorrow.

This would be an acceleration from Boris Johnson’s previous announcement that an undefined number and genre of hospitality businesses in the U.K. could reopen on 4 July. The firmest thing about that announcement — the date — came with the caveat that “scientific advice” on the rate of novel coronavirus transmission in the U.K. could move it. It also excluded businesses “crowded by design,” which, under current two-metre social distancing rules, would encompass the vast majority of restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes without outdoor spaces.

Johnson has since repeatedly expressed a desire to reduce social distancing rules to one metre, going against both ministerial and medical consensus. It’s a signal that he is at least part-engaged with the nature of the hospitality crisis, deployed throughout the last fortnight to dangle carrots, veer from scientific advice, and sow confusion with his “hope” that the rule could be relaxed: a move that would in theory aid the reopening of a large section of the hospitality industry.

He is now requesting that business secretary Alok Sharma works to implement this measure, to better aid the return of hospitality businesses. While it scans unlikely that the country’s leader had not until this moment understood the scale of the impact on industries like hospitality — restaurants have been telling the government this for monthsthe Times reports that when Sharma warned that 3.5 million jobs in hospitality were at risk, Johnson replied, “Christ!”

Plans to allow pubs and restaurants to open up for outside service are not wholly new, it’s just that it now has a(nother) date. It follows government moves, first revealed by communities secretary Robert Jenrick in mid April, to introduce a so-called “blanket permission” on outdoor trading licenses for hospitality businesses. Details on those proposals have hitherto been scarce.

The situation is now this: how much risk is the government is willing to take when weighing the effect of prolonged closure of businesses like restaurants? Perhaps it is willing to do as much as it takes to absolve it of sole responsibility when many businesses could close and millions of jobs be lost, regardless of its actions.

Precisely because the outcome is not clear, the government remains split. There are those who want to heed the advice of scientists, who agree that maintaining the two-metre social distancing rule is key to ensuring that transmission of coronavirus in the community does not increase exponentially. The rationale behind waiting to open is to avoid a second peak of the virus, which would in turn result in a return to more severe lockdown measures, and more, potentially permanent, closures.

But there are ministers, like Sunak, Sharma, cabinet office minister Michael Gove, transport secretary Grant Shapps, and culture secretary Oliver Dowden whose prioritisation of economic recovery was buoyed by last Friday’s lowest daily rise in number of deaths (77) since March. They believe that now is the time to act.

That is in part because of pressure from the likes of trade body UK Hospitality which has now said publicly that the social distancing rule should be reduced. Chief executive Kate Nicholls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “At two metres you are receiving 30 percent of your normal revenues, at one metre it gets up to 70 percent — so it is the difference between success and failure for many of those businesses.” The reduction in the distancing rule is exactly that: a percentage game, since it will not meaningfully impact all hospitality businesses’ ability to trade.

The shift in emphasis, as the discourse has moved to focus on the distancing rule and how restaurants can practically return, is in part because of the lack of direct intervention from the government on what is the biggest question for almost all: rent. Tenants and landlords remain largely at in impasse, with government policy to-date designed to facilitate productive dialogue, not stipulate outcomes. The end of June is a key date, as the government-mandated “forfeiture moratorium” expires. It means that what has effectively acted as a rent break for tenants will end. From July, landlords will once more be able to evict tenants which have not been able to pay rent (because of COVID-19). While groups continue to call for an extension of the moratorium, many realise that alternative plans must be made before it is too late. Remaining closed and being protected by the government looks increasingly as if it won’t be an option for much longer; the gap between time and hope is rapidly shrinking.

Urgent action also been hastened by the announced changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), which has served as a short-term rescue for businesses — preserving large sections of their workers by paying 80 percent of wages since March. Sunak announced that the CJRS will formally end in October, but beginning in August, businesses will be obliged to contribute to those wage payments.

If these new plans go forward, restaurants will have two weeks to plan how they can reopen in a feasible manner, with key rules and policies on distancing and outside trading yet to be decided. For the government, this acceleration is a damage limitation policy for the economy, but it also appears to be a damage limitation policy for the government itself. It aims to mitigate its own accountability on a decision that, as it stands, could destroy as many restaurants as it saves. There is a lot to decide in the nine days between now and 22 June, a date that could determine the uncertain future of this industry.