With just five days to go until Prime Minister Boris Johnson presents a “roadmap” out of coronavirus restrictions, on Monday 22 February, the Daily Mail has revealed a leaked “blueprint for escaping lockdown”. It suggests that pubs and restaurants will begin a phased reopening from early May.
The ‘target dates’, according to the Mail’s leak would see pubs, bars and restaurants “welcome customers, with a maximum of two households allowed to sit together indoors and the ‘rule of six’ applying outside” from early May.
Then, in early June, the rule of six would be extended to indoor dining. By July, hospitality “can operate as normal” but with social distancing measures in place, a future reality which was leaked yesterday, Tuesday 16 February.
In this scenario, restaurants and hospitality venues are set to face broadly the same set of restrictions they did...last July. Those restrictions are likely to again be published as guidance and not made mandatory, which leaves individuals to interpret them and often small, comparatively inexperienced teams to enforce ‘rules’ which may or may not have the support of guests or even colleagues.
This then would be the “cautious and irreversible” plan touted by Johnson at the start of the week. The delivery of the real roadmap, Johnson has already said, is going to be determined by a number of factors, including the number of groups vaccinated in the coming weeks, the rate of transmission of COVID-19, the number of hospitalisations, and deaths. It is also expected that the phased reopening plan will not include unpopular half-way and selective restrictions such as the 10 p.m. curfew, “substantial meal” clause, or tiered restrictions in different regions of the country.
But if this is the plan, then restaurants will still need all of their support systems — furlough, VAT rate cut, rates holiday, and rent protections — to be extended not just beyond the end of March, which is when they are currently set to expire, but until much later in the year. Restaurants are in debt, they have ground to make up, and the costs associated with reopening means they’re hampered in their attempts at hitting that ground running. There’s an expectation that pent up demand will be to the benefit of restaurants and pubs in the days post-restrictions, but first they have to get there. To add to their sense of unease in the interim, Johnson is apparently not expected to deliver a timetable for the return of workers to offices in Monday’s announcement. For businesses in central London especially, the absence of those who underpin the lunch trade has been a major problem since last July.
While this all tracks with a leak from 11 January, in which an anonymous government source predicted that pubs would not reopen until... May, it is another instance in which Cabinet Office minister — “real title”, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster — Michael Gove has been wrong. In 2020, Gove was overly cautious on reopening; last month, he was too optimistic. Politicians will be politicians, but repeatedly over- and under-promising and never over-delivering in a pandemic just adds to restaurants’s and their workers’s sense of uncertainty.
Oh, and this won’t be the last of the leaks this week. This government will make sure that every single detail is known before it is officially announced on Monday. Not that restaurants can do anything about it.