With just over six weeks until critical coronavirus support packages keeping restaurants afloat expire, chancellor Rishi Sunak has suggested that hospitality businesses will have to wait until the 3 March to learn what economic assistance will or won’t be extended through and beyond the current national lockdown.
Sunak has been reacting to new Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures, which further outline the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.K. economy. It shrank by a record 9.9 percent last year, as reported by BBC News, which is “more than twice as much as the previous largest annual fall on record,” according to the ONS. Growth did however “pick up” at the end of the year, preventing what economists call a “double-dip recession” — when economic output shrinks once, then recovers a little, before shrinking again.
“Today’s figures show that the economy has experienced a serious shock as a result of the pandemic, which has been felt by countries around the world,” Sunak said in a statement released by the Treasury. “While there are some positive signs of the economy’s resilience over the winter, we know that the current lockdown continues to have a significant impact on many people and businesses.”
Sunak emphasised that his “focus remains fixed on doing everything we can to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods,” before setting out a timeframe for the publication of his plan. “At the Budget I will set out the next stage of our Plan for Jobs, and the support we’ll provide through the next phase of pandemic,” he said.
That Budget will be delivered on 3 March, in just under three weeks’ time, with Sunak giving the clearest indication yet that the lockdown waiting game is going to continue for restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars.
The current situation for the London restaurant industry is as it was a week ago: “crunch time.” Protections against eviction and tax cuts are all due to run out at the end of March, just four weeks after Sunak’s publication of an economic plan; wage support for workers is set to run until the end of April. The message from the industry has been clear since the start of the year — all of those support systems must be extended if restaurants and pubs are to survive beyond this current lockdown.
But now it is looking increasingly unlikely that Sunak is going to heed the call of an industry telling him in no uncertain terms they need to know if or not extensions to support will be granted now, next week, or as soon as possible. That industry will now also be asking serious questions of whether the Treasury really is doing “everything” it can to protect jobs, businesses, and livelihoods, as Sunak claims.
Were there some assurances on the timeline for the end of lockdown for restaurants, and that it was scheduled to end before support measures expired, then there would be a degree of logic in Sunak holding off to present his Budget as a complete plan — for every sector and the economy at large. But with those assurances not yet in place, and the fruits of a successful vaccination programme still not expected to arrive until late spring or early summer, every week that goes by without confirming support that will get restaurants to those better times looks like a week wasted.
If one thing is certain in this profoundly uncertain crisis, it’s that the pandemic has affected different industries in different ways at different times. For the industry “hit hardest and earliest,” measures to ensure its survival would be best applied before it is too late.