A government source has said that London restaurants and pubs may not be able to reopen until May this year, a month after lockdown restrictions are first lifted at the end of March.
The Sunday Times quotes the anonymous Downing Street source as contradicting Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. “The May Day bank holiday is more likely the moment you see pubs reopening,” the source said. At a press conference on Tuesday, Johnson had said that while lockdown legislation ran until 31 March, he hoped to begin lifting measures by the middle of February. It was telling however that Johnson chose not to commit to a timeline for schools reopening, though did say that they would be the first to reopen. Businesses had been planning for a return to some kind of “normal” by Easter since before Christmas. Easter is a full month before the May date cited by the Downing Street source.
On the one hand, the May date may be disappointing and sobering for hospitality — that is five months of reduced or restricted trading under the strictest of restrictions while Mayor Sadiq Khan declared the spread of COVID-19 in London as a “major incident” on Friday: the capital is now at the epicentre of an unprecedented and worsening public health crisis. On the other hand, the timescale itself does have precedence in the pandemic: in 2020, the first phase of restrictions were lifted in June, while hospitality was permitted to reopen from the first week of July.
And yet, the news of the rumoured May reopening would indicate that the government has failed to learn lessons from last year: not only does the nature of this leak — unofficial, unverified — add to restaurant’s sense of uncertainty, the government has repeatedly rushed reopening, the effect of which has been to compound the impact of closure with the expense and exhaustion of a yo-yoing close-reopen-close-reopen. This May date would also leave businesses shut for at least a month beyond 31 March, which is when commercial eviction protections expire. Were it to be accurate, those protections would have to be extended.
But while the effects of the U.K.’s vaccine roll-out may by then have eased the severity of the coronavirus crisis, what remains unknown and uncertain right now is this: what does “reopening” mean? Outdoor dining first? Indoor dining with restrictions on household mixing? Full reopening with social distancing guidelines (and reduced cover numbers) still in place?
Business owners and their workers are now entitled to wonder whether the government will extend rent protections, worker wage support, VAT cuts, and business rates holidays — all of which are due to expire at the end of March, decisions apparently made before the virulence of the new COVID variant became apparent. It is now difficult to imagine a scenario in which businesses survive if they are mandated to remain closed until May without protections or support beyond the end of March.
The restaurant industry now must wait until 18 January, when it can expect to learn more about the timeline for restrictions being lifted. Unless of course further leaks continue to demonstrate policymakers’ apparent predilection for making a meal out of its future.
- Shock therapy: Boris Johnson’s critics say cabinet needs massive jolt [Sunday Times/Paywall]