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Government Will Fine Restaurants That Aren’t ‘COVID-Secure’, Without Explaining What That Means

Boris Johnson has threatened penalties, but details of what restaurants will be fined for haven’t arrived

Boris Johnson Holds Coronavirus Press Conference Announcing Socialising Restrictions Stefan Rousseau- WPA Pool/Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a new tightening of COVID-19 restrictions to avoid a second national lockdown in the U.K. Alongside “Operation Moonshot” — the long-overdue mass testing initiative — and confirmation that gatherings of more than six people would be banned from next Monday, Johnson used his first Downing Street press briefing for some months to outline that the previously optional track-and-trace would become mandatory for restaurants. Johnson also announced that “fines will be levied against hospitality venues that fail to ensure their premises remain Covid-secure.”

Where there was detail, the significance of the announcements for restaurants appears minimal: a maximum booking of six people is something most businesses can live with fairly easily. It will affect group bookings for larger venues, but the overall impact on an industry whose principal concern since July has been staying open after months of lockdown, there’s a sense that an incremental tightening of restrictions is a price worth paying. The majority of restaurants are already carrying out track-and-trace, since online booking technology doubles as a record of all those who have visited the premises.

What is less clear is what else constitutes a breach of Covid-security. The government’s official Covid-secure guidance, published in June, was recommendatory. None of it was legally obligatory. If that is changing, then restaurants need to know. At the moment, they don’t. Public health and the responsibility of business’ role within that are important. But a threat to punish someone or something before they know exactly what they need to avoid does little to allay the fears of an industry already toiling in a quagmire of uncertainty.

When asked if anything else within the existing published safety guidance would become mandatory — mask-wearing, sanitisation of spaces, “one-metre-plus” social distancing, for example — the government’s department for business pointed Eater London simply to the “background information” in its publication of the new measures, which says: “Full details will be set out in the coming days and clarified in the laying of regulations.” The department was not able to confirm to Eater when those clarifications would be made.

The industry’s principal trade body, UK Hospitality, is none the wiser. It published a statement shortly after Johnson’s press conference. Chief executive Kate Nicholls said just that it represented “a further shift towards hospitality businesses to act to protect public health. This is a challenge that the sector has already grasped and will redouble efforts to achieve, in the interest of customers and staff, and to minimise the risk of further lockdowns.” It did not indicate its awareness of any further rules being enforced, but Eater understands it has sought additional clarity from the government.

It is plausible that the government has not decided on its plans, even though enforcement of the confirmed measures will be in place from Monday next week. It is also likely that the announcements are designed as a threat, and the instances of fining or closures will be minimal. Yet, there are two risks for hospitality businesses on the basis of this strategy: airy fairy information plays into the hands of enforcers’ biases. In his briefing, Johnson said: “We will support local authorities [to whom enhanced enforcement powers were devolved in July] to make further and faster use of powers to close venues that are breaking the rules and pose a risk to public health.”

Without detail, the powers of local authorities are open to interpretation. Which venues will they decide to fine or close? Moreover, the spectacle of Johnson at the lectern in Downing Street for the first time since July, portends yet further tightening of restrictions in the autumn and winter.

The inadequacies in the government’s communication is no excuse for the difficulties attached to balancing the pandemic’s impact on public health and the damage to the economy. Indeed, the biggest effect of Johnson’s rhetoric, which UK Hospitality’s Nicholls has pointed out, could be on consumer confidence, just as restaurants had enjoyed a summer of exponential rise in optimism and footfall. This is the uncertainty that restaurants have known they are going to have to get used to. Johnson himself may yet refer to it as: “whack-a-mole on roguish restaurateurs.” The problem is, no-one knows who’s breaking a law that doesn’t yet exist.