Restaurant groups are once again imploring the government to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions. With London now under tier 4 coronavirus restrictions — a lockdown by any other name would smell and c — and health secretary Matt Hancock claiming it could be there for months, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars need money. They need money quickly. And they need more money than the government is giving them now.
UK Hospitality has written yet another letter to the prime minister, asking not just for proportionate financial support, but for an “exit strategy” that is conducted in line with vaccination. While the government and chief medical officers Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have spent recent weeks emphasising that spring 2021 is going to be a time when deaths and hospitalisations from the novel coronavirus are going to come down, they are yet to join this up with how that predicted decline impacts businesses’ ability to trade.
UK Hospitality presents a case for a model similar to France, in which businesses either ordered to close or which have lost significant trade receive grants of up to €10,000. It also asks for a fresh business rates holiday through 2021-2022, and a further extension to the cut on VAT from 20 percent to 5 percent which currently runs until March 2021. Crucially, it also caveats the government’s reliance on the furlough scheme as proof of support: “It must be realised furlough is not enough on its own to protect jobs, as it still costs business to keep people on and relies on those businesses remaining solvent.”
Currently, businesses have access to that furlough scheme, and a coronavirus loan scheme that is now allowing applications until March 2021. But loans are debt; many restaurants have already taken on debt from earlier loans; and many more are essentially waiting for a financial axe to fall when the rent moratorium expires in March 2021. As throughout the crisis, despite it being labelled as unprecedented, government support is simply not enough. As throughout the crisis, when it comes to rent, the government is simply unwilling to decisively intervene where it feels it does not have to, and will put off the coup de grace until it is delivered out of its control.
And while the rollout of vaccines — pending the approval of the AstraZeneca jab that would further speed things up into 2021 — might offer businesses hope, there thus far has been no indication of how their mitigation of risk will translate into any kind of reopening. With the rapid decrease in deaths and hospitalisations expected from vaccinating the most vulnerable, the hope for business will be that the country can reach a point where it can “tolerate” coronavirus — as it does seasonal flu — without putting strain on a systematically underfunded national health service and without many more people dying who did not have to die at all. As those choices approach for the government, restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes will no longer be in their own, singularly absurd pandemic nightmare of substantial meals and Scotch eggs, of “Eat Out to Help Out” and illegal pints. They will be one small part of a wider survey of what “recovering” means for Britain — not just from the pandemic, but from its prevaricating management, which has left the hospitality world yo-yoing for nine months on strings it cannot control. In the interim, London’s restaurants will wait and see which way they will be strung next.