In seven days, on Monday 17 May, restaurants in London will again be legally permitted to reopen their dining rooms. It will be the first time they have done so since before Christmas — a four month lockdown coming to an end with the reopening of outdoor dining on 12 April.
Today, 10 May, at 5 p.m. Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans for the latest stage — step three — in his so-called “roadmap” out of lockdown. As well as the reopening of indoor hospitality, Johnson told the nation it is, once again, permitted to ... Hug!
Johnson began with another thank you to “restaurants that have been waiting to reopen.” The “rule of six” will apply indoors, with outdoor dining now extended to up to thirty people.
While 17 May will mark the most significant lifting of coronavirus restrictions on restaurants in 2021, it is “step four” on the “roadmap,” due to be implemented on 21 June, when “all legal limits on social contact” will be removed, with the reopening of large events like theatre performances and nightclubs and, restaurants hope, the return of what they knew to be “normal” before March 2020. Johnson said that “certification and social distancing” will be discussed at the end of May, with a view to implementing them — or not — by 21 June. Social distancing will continue in pubs, restaurants, and other hospitality venues until at least that date.
“[17 May] is another important step on the road to freedom and the recovery of our sector. We know Brits cannot wait to get back inside a warm pub,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA.) “However, inside opening with restrictions is still not enough to secure the survival of pubs. We need them to be fully reopened without any restrictions at all from 21 June to survive and trade viably.”
Trade lobby U.K. Hospitality has used the beginning of the seven day countdown to emphasise the need for support systems to be extended beyond the summer, particularly on the rent question, if restaurants and pubs are to recover properly following months of closure and restricted trade.
Last week, the trade lobby restated that the £2.5 billion in rent debt “hanging around the neck of hospitality” was a threat to the future of thousands of businesses and over 330,000 jobs.
A survey of its members found that more than half said they have not had a rent reduction from their landlord despite “prolonged periods of closure and over a year of punitive trading restrictions.”
In addition, the survey found that:
- 52 percent had not been given any extension to pay rent
- 73 percent are either unable or don’t know how they can pay owe rent
- 40 percent have not been able to reach a deal with their landlord over rent concessions.
It is now just seven weeks until legal protections — in place and periodically extended since March 2020 — preventing landlords from evicting tenants which have been unable to make rent payments during the COVID-19 crisis. Unless the government does something that it hasn’t done since the start of the pandemic — and finds a solution that works for tenant and landlord — then locks will be changed, businesses will go bust, restaurants will close, and jobs will be lost come the start of July.
During the course of the pandemic, restaurant owners have consistently said that rent debt is their biggest concern; the issue that could derail reopening and compromise their future.
Kate Nicholls, U.K. Hospitality’s chief executive said last week: “The issue of rent debt must be resolved in a way that shares the burden as businesses simply cannot be expected to pay their rent arrears in full.
“This is why the Government must take affirmative action to help hospitality rebuild and play its part in the economic recovery. There has to be a sharing of the pain caused by lockdowns and trading restrictions.”
At the very least, Nicholls said the government must extend “and expand” protections until the end of 2021 — a further six month extension. She also said that it must “force the writing off of a fair amount of Covid rent debt.”
“The removal of protections would be disastrous and result in a huge increase in enforcement activity — meaning business failures and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost,” she said.
More next week.