As Michelin prepares to dole out its shiny stars for 2021, London restaurants begin another week with their dining rooms closed, dependent on takeaway, delivery, or a turn towards groceries.
They also start the week having learned via the Telegraph this weekend that the government could be introducing a “halfway house” lockdown which could see pubs and restaurants open with social distancing measures in place “as soon as Easter.” That timeframe would run alongside the current targets on vaccination, which have all over-50s receiving a first dose by Easter. The logic of the “halfway house” — which might be more accurately described as the same restrictions restaurants traded under last summer — is reportedly that it buys time to deliver second doses, and then allow “full” reopening twelve weeks later, with no restrictions on trade at all.
Based on the report, which cites a source “familiar with the discussions” internally, the plans under consideration “could see a full reopening of the economy under ‘normal’ rules by the first week of July.” In the interim period from April to July, restaurants and pubs could expect capacity limitations enforced by social distancing; a return to the curfews that the government introduced in 2020 and tossed out a few months later appears unlikely. There would also almost certainly be strict limits on household mixing in hospitality settings initially.
However, the government itself distanced itself from the proposals on Sunday night. A 10 Downing Street spokesman said: “It’s not a timetable under discussion”.
It is — the nature of the information notwithstanding — something for those in hospitality to hold onto if not yet exactly work towards. There is still a lot that could change between now and April.
But those lobbying on behalf of restaurants and pubs naturally, but “cautiously welcomed the prospect of reopening under ‘halfway house’ restrictions from April.” UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said that the reality of restricted trading conditions after reopening meant that support measures must be introduced to mitigate any losses. “We understand that restrictions might need to be in place for quite a period of time after we reopen,” she said last night. “In that case, given that would have a significant impact on business viability and jobs within the sector, we would want to work with the government to support us through that reopening and recovery period as we transition out of restrictions.”
Nicholls emphasised the need to extend two key measures for the rest of 2021 and into next year, in order to give businesses the best chance of survival. “Key to [supporting businesses through reopening] would be extending the business rates holiday and the VAT cut.” There is a growing fear in the restaurant world that, with the promise of vaccines and recovery on the horizon, chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March Budget will be too late to save restaurants that will have to take terminal decisions before then, even if the measures introduced by that Budget would have kept them afloat.
What Nicholls didn’t say is that for the vast majority of businesses, the most important element of reopening is that it happens only once it is guaranteed that they will not have to close again. After 12 months of uncertainty, a rollercoaster of opening, closing, extensions to support schemes, and a litany of surprises, restaurants have had enough of having their plans undermined by rushed decision-making, naivety, hubris, and baseless optimism.
As hard as it may be to wait longer, it will be far better for restaurants in the long-run to wait not only until they can reopen, but to wait until the time is right for them to open and remain open.