As Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised that the rollout of the Oxford vaccine is “the way out” of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he also said that the tier system is not working, meaning the U.K.’s restaurants have begun the year waiting for the next round of coronavirus restrictions. Boris Johnson, as has been typical throughout the pandemic, hinted at “tougher” restrictions on Sunday in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, rather than just announcing them. Within 24 hours, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a national lockdown. With cases rising steeply, particularly in London and the south east of England, it is almost inevitable that more severe restrictions will come into place from this week, reminiscent of March 2020’s lockdown.
It would be easy to say that any new measures are largely academic for London restaurants; they are restricted to takeaway-only from in tier four and a move into national lockdown, or tier five, almost certainly wouldn’t change that. But an uptick in the severity of restrictions also poses fresh questions about how long they will have to stay closed, without — as it stands — proportionate financial support for what’s happening now and policy on rent for what happens on 31 March, when eviction protections expire, the government said in December, for the last time. Labour’s shadow business minister Lucy Powell called for the £2 billion in business rates “returned” by supermarkets to support high street businesses before Christmas, but the government is yet to move on any proposal.
Restaurants could end up in a position where as the pandemic “gets better,” nothing happens to them — especially if the tier system, which Matt Hancock labelled “no longer strong enough,” on Radio 4’s Today Programme on 4 January, is scrapped. An effective new lockdown would also change consumer behaviour, with more people staying at home. This would in turn impact restaurants’ operations — those able to do so leveraging online delivery both locally and nationwide, or taking the form of grocers, as a number did in March — July, November, and December. While the government is extremely unlikely to ban takeaway operations, they may become a less lucrative revenue stream, which will have an impact on already stretched supply chains and reduced staffing as much as the bottom line.
Restaurants and lobby group U.K. Hospitality have already pushed the government on not just financial support, but an exit strategy, in the wake of the tier four announcement in mid-December. Although Hancock, Johnson, and Britain’s top scientists Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty continue to cite Easter 2021 as the time when things will “get better,” that’s four days after rent protections expire. While vaccines are the source of that potential getting better, 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 — and reopen with some social distancing and masking measures still in place. If beleaguered restaurants make it to a time when vaccination makes them safe, they are also making it to a time when Brexit’s impact on food supply chains and the labour market will be keenly felt.
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. As of now, they remain in limbo.