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Government Did Not Assess Cost to Hospitality When Introducing Coronavirus Curfew

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Medical data, reports from inside Downing Street, and events on the ground suggest that its epidemiological impact will be negligible

A man stands in silhouette in a brightly lit doorway in Soho — the rest of the image is dark
A symbolic move from the government will have material consequences for the restaurant world
Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images

The London restaurant world was never going to like the 10p.m. coronavirus curfew. Reducing trading hours in restaurants, bars, and pubs which had already cut capacity for social distancing was always going to be catastrophic for those venues’ revenue. But if the curfew had basis in epidemiological modelling and public health advice presented to the government, it would at least feel better — less severe, more effective — than the full, two-week, “circuit break” lockdown leaked and rejected days before the curfew was announced.

Multiple reports over the weekend show that the 10p.m. curfew has no basis in science and no economic risk assessment attached to it. The Independent reported that Conservative business minister Paul Scully told Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper that “no assessment has been made” of the revenue lost to the curfew, but added that “we will be working with the sector to understand the impact over the coming weeks.” A further report in the Times documented the arrival at the curfew:

In a separate meeting on Sunday night with his top team, he approved a plan to continue with the rule of six, but introduce a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. The practical effects of this were not modelled by Sage, but it was seen as “a good symbolic thing because it’s a low-cost way of sending a clear message that things are different”.

Restaurant staff say that “low-cost” is not a phrase they would use to define the curfew. Emma Underwood, general manager at Darby’s in Nine Elms, recently told Eater that “closing at 10 means that we lose a whole sitting.” That loss of revenue ultimately cuts staff shifts, with hourly staff suffering most. As Underwood put it, “it can mean the difference of up to £500 / month, which is someone’s rent.”

That loss of revenue being passed on to staff could be mitigated by the use of the coronavirus job retention scheme, or furlough as it is more commonly known. But that scheme runs out at the end of next month, and is being replaced by a new job support scheme in which employers and the government jointly make up lost pay for workers who are able to work a third of their hours, minimum. Chancellor Rishi Sunak describes it as a way of supporting “viable jobs.”

But the chancellor is from the same government whose curfew necessarily makes restaurants less viable than they were before. Restaurants that had already been able to reopen, must now be open for less time; restaurants that couldn’t reopen now have even less chance of doing so; pubs and bars, which rely on drinks sales, often move to the cadence of restaurant sittings, and couldn’t benefit from Eat Out to Help Out, are in crisis mode. This is the central tension between the government’s two flagship coronavirus policies for hospitality: one makes it harder for restaurants to operate, while the other promises to save restaurants, but only the ones who can operate under newly tougher conditions.

The Scylla and Charybdis of the situation is impossible to ignore, but could be understood if the net effect was to drive down novel coronavirus cases, which are rising steadily in the U.K. (but slowed down the weekend before this week.) Restaurants have recently taken to sharing snapshots of Public Health England surveillance data on Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI) outbreaks, which shows that minute numbers are traced to hospitality outlets. In week 38 of the year, that figure was 2.8 percent; the overwhelming majority were in schools and care homes.

The flipside of this is that an ARI is not a case nor a positive test. The same PHE data shows that 20-29 year olds remain the overwhelming majority of positive tests in the last 12 weeks — a demographic that spends little time in either schools and care homes. The same PHE data shows that when asked about activity in the 2-7 days prior to symptom onset, eating out was the most-reported activity, but it was the most-reported activity outside of “other,” which mashes together “hospitality” and “food production” with “military” and “event in a shared household.”

Taken together, the ARI and contact tracing data show only one clear conclusion: the data available to the government between ARIs, positive tests, and contacts traced does not unilaterally confirm or deny the possible efficacy of a curfew. All it proves is that different data measurements would — if taken in a vacuum outside of political pressure — lead to different measures. So while restaurateurs may be overstating the case against a curfew with angry ARI data pie charts and insensitive comparisons between a fictional alien attack and a real, deadly pandemic, the government is yet to make a case for a curfew with any data at all. Boris Johnson’s own explanation in the House of Commons was that “the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.”

With the measures based on breaking a second wave of COVID-19, the lack of a firm case for them now appears to be cresting into a wave of its own. Labour minister and mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham is calling for an “urgent review”; at least one senior Conservative MP has said the curfew “makes no sense”; U.K. Hospitality and other industry figures are pushing back; the exemption for parliamentary bars was swiftly reversed after an outcry. Footage of impromptu street parties, which entirely undermine hospitality businesses’ efforts to be safe, is spreading. As restaurants, pubs, and bars fear for their futures under the new measures, what was marketed by the government as a “low-cost” piece of symbolism is swiftly proving anything but.

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