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Restaurants Are Sucked Back in to the Lockdown Rumour Mill

Despite lockdown legislation dated to 31 March, contradictory timelines on reopening are coming from all directions

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The frontage of Stoke Newington Cafe Esters, with a grey shutter rolled down halfway Michael Prötin/Eater London

A mixture of comments from Boris Johnson and new scientific modelling on when coronavirus lockdown will end in England has sent the rumour mill into overdrive on when restaurants will be able to reopen. Here’s a rundown, based on what is known right now.

When is coronavirus lockdown going to end in England?

It depends on the status of the pandemic, according to the numbers and trajectory of coronavirus cases, hospitalisations, and deaths, and how that translates into pressure on the NHS. The legislation that enforces the current lockdown, which is the firmest date the government can look to at this time, is signed into law until 31 March 2021.

What did Boris Johnson say about when coronavirus lockdown will end in England?

On a visit to Didsbury in Greater Manchester, reporters asked the prime minister about the easing of lockdown restrictions. He said: “I think it’s too early to say when we’ll be able to lift some of the restrictions.” He did not say anything about May, or even summer, as headlines from those comments suggest. The prime minister’s spokesperson was asked to rule out lockdown lasting until summer — therefore being asked to predict a situation in either four or five months’ time, depending on whether you prefer your summer metereological or astronomical — and said, “We will continue to keep all of the scientific evidence and data under review.” It is something of a leap to extrapolate that this means coronavirus lockdown will not end in England until summer 2021.

What did epidemiological experts say about when coronavirus lockdown will end in England?

Not a lot. Comments from Professor Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at University of Edinburgh, and Dr Marc Baguelin, lecturer in infectious disease modelling at Imperial College London on the lifting of restrictions have circulated because of their focus on keeping restaurants and pubs closed until May. But the end of lockdown is not the same as lifting restrictions, and neither Baguelin nor Woolhouse defined what “reopening” would mean. Variables include indoor or outdoor dining, the enforcement of social distancing, the enforcement of curfews, and restrictions that apply to specific venues, such as whether or not pubs have to serve the dreaded substantial meal.

What does this mean for restaurants, pubs, diners, and drinkers?

Very little and quite a lot. It’s both the prime minister and scientists’ job to respond to questions and journalists’ job to ask them; this doesn’t change the fact that expecting either to rule something out that is four or five months away is a recipe for uncertainty and equivocation. Something worth noting is that Woolhouse’s comments were based on the following: “A full release of the entire population from restrictions could potentially result in another wave.”

“A full release of the entire population” is simply not going to happen, at any time soon; the lifting of lockdown is widely expected to be followed by a return to some kind of tier system and there is no scenario in which restaurants and pubs would be allowed to reopen to pre-pandemic levels in one fell swoop. This doesn’t mean that rumours of timelines aren’t painful for restaurants, their workers, and their owners; being yo-yoed between open, closed, and “open” was a theme of 2020 and one that no-one wants to experience again.

What are the other coronavirus timelines that affect restaurants?

Thus far, a running theme of 2021 is the government’s apparent lack of foresight on another topic moving on to a collision course with restaurants’ desperate need for it: financial support. Recent figures from U.K. Hospitality show that by one study alone, 6,000 licensed premises have closed in the U.K. since this time last year. The real figure is likely to be many more and it is as things stand, likely to rise further come the end of March, when four things happen: rent protections run out; the VAT cut from 20 percent to 5 percent runs out; the business rates holiday runs out; and — lockdown legislation currently ends. In short: as restaurants and pubs might be able to reopen in some capacity, the measures keeping them going will be cut off, jobs will be lost, and businesses will close. The support to date will have been for nothing.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is for now sticking to his 3 March Budget as the date for the next tranche of support. An extension to the furlough scheme that currently ends in April seems likely, and an extension to the VAT cut and rates relief seems more likely than an extension to rent protections. Extending all of them to September would give restaurants a run at being open through summer, and critically make it more likely that once reopened, they will not have to close again.

Can restaurants wait until 3 March for more coronavirus support?

As with the 31 March cliff-edge, there will be many restaurants and pubs who cannot wait until 3 March to take decisions that will keep them afloat — or, if necessary, close them down. They have to take those decisions on the worst-case assumption, that there will be no further relief. They cannot survive on rumours, just as lockdown timelines cannot be built on them.

And while delaying the inevitable is a hallmark of the government’s coronavirus policy, Sunak’s waiting is of a different kind to Boris Johnson’s current caution on easing restrictions. He fears mounting debt, which translates into the Scotch egg debate and formerly allowing restaurants and pubs to open when public health measures throttle their trade. That aversion to incur more and more debt made some sense when vaccination was hypothetical; it makes much less sense when millions of people are being vaccinated per week. At this stage, Sunak’s apparent caution on support is much more dangerous to restaurants than Johnson’s evident caution on lockdowns. If restaurants are to even have the opportunity to ask about when they might reopen beyond rumours, they need to be kept in business first.