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Restaurants Respond to Matt Hancock’s Assertion That ‘Social Settings’ Drive Spike in Coronavirus Cases

The numbers suggest that the health secretary is selling pork pies, but it doesn’t really matter in the end

A table setting with wineglasses and napkins at Yottam Ottolenghi’s new restaurant, Rovi Rovi [Official Photo]

Restaurants have hit back at health secretary Matt Hancock after he sought to blame “social settings” for the rise in U.K. coronavirus cases, despite Public Health England data showing that care homes, educational settings, and workplaces are stronger drivers.

U.K. Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said that “if we are to have further national lockdowns it is vital that we have transparent and grown up debate on the drivers of infection ... clear that hospitality is not a vector of transmission or a source of infection.” She backed this assertion with Public Health England’s record of cases from week 37 of 2020, in which 34 cases were traced to food outlet or restaurant settings, 313 to care homes, 193 to educational settings, and 110 in workplaces.

Restaurants’ strong opposition to Hancock’s assertion is not just a matter of pride. The government used its familiar “leak it and see what the public does” strategy to moot the possibility of a national coronavirus lockdown targeted at restaurants last week; the proposed measures would last a few weeks. Such a lockdown would likely be terminal for many restaurants across the city. 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.

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.

It’s not quite so simple as quoting the numbers, though. “Eat Out to Help Out,” expansive permissions for tables and seating on roads and pavements, and a summer with an unseasonably long tail put outdoor dining at the heart of going out in London in the last months, and outdoor dining is widely considered to be significantly less risky than indoor dining. Eat Out to Help Out, of course, literally saw the government paying for people to go to restaurants, so Hancock’s blame game has at least an air of self-recrimination.

As autumn does what it does, if trading levels stay where they are — or even increase — that’s going to mean more diners, eating inside more often, inside more restaurants. And all this happening while the government dithers on restaurant closures, just as it did before Boris Johnson ordered them to close on 20 March. Whether or not Hancock’s assertions stack up doesn’t really matter in the end: what matters is whether the government acts decisively, at speed, on keeping restaurants open, announcing tighter restrictions on dining in, or telling them to close. The longer and more variegated the shades of grey, the worse the situation will get.