As U.K. coronavirus cases continue to rise, new government COVID-19 restrictions could shut down hospitality businesses for “a few weeks.” In one 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.
The government’s initial closure of restaurants was shambolic. Boris Johnson ordered dine-in services to stop from 20 March, but not before “advising” the public to avoid restaurants several days earlier, leading many London operators to shut their doors of their own accord. With cases now apparently doubling every seven days, there is clearly a public health case for restrictions. But closing and then reopening, while immeasurably difficult for restaurants, was possible for many thanks to the coronavirus job retention scheme, lease forfeiture moratorium, and coronavirus business loans — even if all three of those had their problems.
Reopening, closing, and reopening again is 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.
Any temporary closures would also have to consider the following reopening. The “few weeks” mooted by the BBC would take restaurants into late October, just a week before the furlough scheme is set to expire. Asking restaurants to then reopen, in the state which those that have reopened are in now, with just a week of job support left, would also likely be terminal. 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.