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What the New Coronavirus Variant Means for Restaurants in England

The Delta variant of Covid-19 slowed down reopening plans — but it is unlikely to derail them

Covid-19 signage at Lina Stores during lockdown in early 2021, with a QR code and blue mask sticker on the door of the restaurant
Covid-19 signage at Lina Stores during lockdown in early 2021
Michaël Protin/Eater Londonh

While London’s restaurants reopen their dining rooms for the first time in 152 days, they are at stage three of a four-stage coronavirus lockdown roadmap.

Stage four has now been delayed from 21 June to 19 July, because of the B.1.617.2 / Delta variant, first detected in India and, it appears, able to spread to the U.K. But what does this new coronavirus variant mean for restaurants, their workers, and diners?


How serious is the arrival of this new Delta coronavirus variant?

References to “surges” and “spikes” suggest it is very serious but the data underlying them suggests it’s hard to tell. The Delta variant is now responsible for over 95 percent of coronavirus cases in England.

But at large, cases, hospitalisations, and deaths remain at their lowest levels since summer 2020. And because it is currently hard to parse whether or not the Delta variant is inherently much more transmissible, aided and abetted by social conditions in its current spread, or, most likely, a blend of the two, ascertaining its current seriousness is difficult.

Could this be as bad as the so-called Kent variant, B.1.1,7, which brought about the most recent lockdown? If not, what’s different?

The B.1.1.7 variant spread most devastatingly before the vaccination programme had begun, worsened by the three month gap between its seeding and the government “announcing its discovery.” Now, the vaccination roll-out is through to over-18-year-olds, and cases of the Delta variant are significantly lower in vaccinated age ranges than unvaccinated — the former also being those most at risk of severe illness and death. While this may not hugely affect the Delta variant’s ability to spread, it should prevent hospitalisations and deaths that devastated the country in winter 2020 — 2021, and put restaurants into lockdown.

All currently available evidence shows that the vaccines work very effectively against the Delta variant, and while some statistical models are projecting major waves of hospitalisation and death, it is impossible to consider them without first knowing the statistical assumptions they are working from. They are often not conversant with the current mechanics of Covid-19, because certain things — particularly the impact of vaccines on transmission — are very hard to statistically model. As with the impact on restaurants, as more real world data comes in about B.1.617.2 / Delta, a clearer picture should emerge.


What does it mean for restaurants right now?

For restaurants, the germane concern right now is that prevalence of this variant is currently highest in unvaccinated age groups, the dominant demographic in hospitality workers, who have just gone back to working indoors, where they are most at risk from airborne coronavirus transmission. The government’s own report into hospitality transmission showed that, while small, the risk to workers is significantly greater than to diners, and being immediately serious ill is not the only risk, with “long Covid” still both prevalent and not fully understood.

When we will know what it means for restaurants longer term?

All signs point to restaurants being able to open at full capacity on 19 July 2021. While this date will, according to most projections, be close to the peak of the current coronavirus wave, the effectiveness of vaccines is such that this will not translate into struggle for the NHS.

Could this bring about another national lockdown or severe tiered restrictions which would close restaurants?

This is very unlikely. Ministers are unwilling to rule it out because they’ve been burned by uncertainty too many times during the course of the pandemic, but the government’s “four tests” for the roadmap do not include case numbers, which — for now — is the only metric being significantly affected by B.1.617.2 / the Delta variant. Any future measures would likely not impinge on restaurant capacity, and instead revolve around “vaccine passports” — which bring their own practical and philosophical problems.

What does a change to the lifting of restrictions on 21 June mean for restaurants?

Two coronavirus rules affect restaurants’ ability to trade: One metre plus social distancing requirements; and the rule of six. These rules both protect workers and diners, and reduce the number of covers inside a restaurant by as much as half. As this continues beyond 21 June, there have been renewed calls for the extension of the support schemes designed to mitigate lost revenue from those restrictions.

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