Wolseley co-owner and influential restaurateur Jeremy King has dispatched his latest polemic via email, again criticising the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, warning of hundreds of thousands of job losses in hospitality, and calling on Prime Minster Boris Johnson to rethink the 10 p.m. curfew.
King described the tier 2 coronavirus restrictions which came into place in London at the weekend as “another knee jerk, ineffective, window-dressing, butt-covering initiative that hasn’t been thought through properly.” King added that its introduction had resulted in a 50 percent reduction in bookings at his — Corbin and King’s — West End restaurants last week. This coming after his reporting that since reopening on 4 July, the group’s 550 staff had served over 250,000 customers “without a single notification of infection.”
But the introduction of new restrictions places restaurants in what he calls “the worst of both worlds as we are left in ‘no man’s land’ with our clientele discouraged to come [without] compensatory help from the government.” King says that “realistically the hospitality industry is confronting a drop of 75 percent in turnover and 750,000 job losses because there is no support from the government.” The support the government is offering — the Job Support Scheme (JSS), in which it contributes 22 percent of the wages for “viable” jobs, also came in for heavy criticism: “Please don’t let anyone tell you that the JSS is a worthy replacement for furlough [where it covered 80 percent of wages] — it is unworkable and too expensive.”
Nevertheless, King confirmed that the Delaunay, the group’s grand European cafe on Aldwych, reopened yesterday (20 October). This despite a dearth of office workers, tourists, and theatre-goers, on whom the restaurant has always relied. Even before the introduction of tier 2, King wrote that its reopening was “always going to be an act of positivity and optimism,” predicated on the need to protect the jobs of the restaurant’s 100 employees. Encouraged by the number of bookings received ahead of opening, King wrote: “we were determined to save our staff and somehow ride this out.”
Coming after a series of outspoken emails through the pandemic, there’s a sense in this latest communication that King’s patience with the government is running out. As signified by the recent warning from trade bodies and those in attendance at Monday’s protest outside Parliament, the current situation for hospitality appears to be more serious than at any point during the last six months. King wrote: “It is time for us to get more demanding,” before echoing the argument presented by London Mayor Sadiq Khan yesterday: “One of the many questions I would ask Boris Johnson is why we still need a [10 p.m.] curfew under the new restrictions?”
King goes further, emphasising how the hospitality industry is left unrepresented by those in government: “For my sector the fact that we have no ministerial representation in Parliament asking these questions is indicative of the contempt that we are held in across many of the Departments — not least the Home Office,” he wrote, the latter point presumably in reference to what others have called a “disastrous” new immigration policy.
Such dissatisfaction seems not just to have dented morale, but inclined those like King to apply the most generous of interpretations to what earlier this week was reported to be a “loophole” in the new tier 2 coronavirus restrictions. King is unequivocal, pointing out that “business meetings are permissible in restaurants and bars.” That is, parties of a maximum size of six which are not from the same household or support bubble are technically permitted to eat in restaurants. He calls it a “glimmer of hope.” Trade body boss Kate Nicholls of UK Hospitality has demanded urgent clarification on the point.
“We have been inundated with requests for information on this, and I know many [...] have cancelled such meetings, so I was keen to set the record straight,” King wrote. “Whether the government does a U-turn on this as well remains to be seen but frankly I have had enough of prevarication, indecision and contradictions and am pressing ahead on this basis irrespectively.”
Others across the city have indicated their willingness to look the other way at would-be rule-breakers. Or rather, suggested they will simply avoid finding out if those guests are breaking any rules in the first place. That they are willing to declare the intention publicly is a sign not just of how desperate restaurants are for customers, but also what happens when the government places so much public health and policing responsibility in the hands of (often small) business owners, and then bungles the communication strategy and support package designed to go with it. The overriding sense is that after six months of compliance, the government has lost the trust of the restaurant world altogether.
“What will really determine the survival of restaurants,” King concluded, “is establishing whether the government really cares about us and also admit their mistakes on all the peripheral idiocies that make restaurateuring nigh impossible: curfew, congestion charges, and the congestion inducing street barriers to name a few.”