New coronavirus legislation in England will end on 31 March, but prime minister Boris Johnson says “mid-February” is when he hopes restrictions will begin to be eased. As in March 2020, this lockdown leaves London’s restaurant dining rooms, pubs, bars, and cafes closed.
Before a retrospective House of Commons vote on the new COVID-19 rules, Johnson said that the new laws’ timeframe is designed to “allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis.” Those are the same tiers that Matt Hancock discredited earlier this week as “not working” against the new, more transmissible variant of coronavirus that the government said on Monday 4 January is responsible for lockdown three.
31 March is also the day that rent protections for restaurants and other commercial businesses currently expire. The government made it clear that it would not extend those protections beyond this date.
In typically flowery language Johnson said that easing lockdown would be a “gradual unwrapping,” rather than a “big bang.” This cautious couching is an improvement on over-promising, but the gap between mid-February and 31 March is six weeks, half the time that lockdown would run if it did indeed last until the end of legislation.
Restaurants have recently been invited to reopen, and then been told to close at short notice after the “gradual easing” that he discusses, leaving money spent on employing staff and buying ingredients entirely wasted. They will not want to go through that experience again. And with the government already having committed to one-off payments of up to £9,000 to closed businesses, alongside the monthly grants linked to tiers three and four, on this occasion any flip-flop could not be attributed to a desire to appease a Chancellor who wishes to expend as little finance as possible before, like many other government decisions in this pandemic, there is no other choice.
Logistically, moving down tiers doesn’t matter to restaurants until London reenters tier two; they are closed except for takeaway and delivery in tiers three and four. But the gap between a named lockdown and those tiers in terms of consumer confidence and behaviour may prove surprisingly stark; any perception of increased liberty, however illusory it may legally be, is likely to have an impact on trade, and therefore the ordering of supplies and rota-ing of staff. The relative furores over takeaway pints and the ontology of Scotch eggs are signal examples of how, in such torrid times, any chance to make things look a little brighter will be grasped for dear life.
Restaurants, already anxious about their ability to trade under the strictest of restrictions, are now contending with weeks of further uncertainty over their prospects of reopening. Johnson said he was “extremely cautious” when it came to providing a timeframe for the reopening of schools, but it would be they which are “first to reopen.” If he can’t say when schools can reopen, the government is some way off countenancing even the potential reopening of restaurants.
It is unlikely that they nor the wider hospitality sector can expect to receive an update before 18 January, almost a fortnight away, when the government has promised its first review of the lockdown restrictions.