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A One-Month Delay to ‘Fully’ Reopening Restaurants Is Looking Inevitable

Pessimistic briefings and reticent ministers suggest a brief delay to “full reopening” for restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson is about to make a call that many in his party are not going to like
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London restaurants are braced for a delay to the final lifting of coronavirus restrictions, scheduled for 21 June, as The Times has reported that the introduction of the fourth and final stage of the government’s so-called reopening “roadmap” could be held off until the first week of July, or even the 21st of that month.

The fortnightly delay was reported after what it referred to as a “downbeat briefing” from the country’s top medics and scientists, chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who delivered the latest, “fairly grim” coronavirus data to ministers in recent days.

The two-week delay being touted would give the government the time to ensure everyone over the age of 50 — those statistically most vulnerable to COVID-19 — had received their second dose of vaccine, and for it to have had sufficient time to protect those groups. For restaurants, the delay means that “one-metre-plus” social distancing regulations must remain in place (which theoretically reduces capacity); and no parties larger than six are able to dine together indoors unless from two households.

It comes as ministers, such as health secretary Matt Hancock have been talking about the race between vaccinations and the dates on the roadmap. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also repeatedly said the government, so often guided by dates not data in 2020, would be guided by data not dates in 2021.

At the moment, the government is concerned about the transmissibility of the Delta variant, which is the principal reason behind ministers’ latter day caution. Nevertheless, Johnson will face stiff (but almost certainly tolerable) opposition from the “freedom”-obsessed Conservative party ministers who comprise factions such as the 1922 Committee and other right-wing, libertarian subsets which have remained generally sceptical of all and any restrictions for months.

Still, ministers are readying their opponents for what now looks like an inevitable delay. On Sunday, Hancock told Sky News that was too early to make a final decision on 21 June, such were the unknowns around the Delta variant. “We’ll keep watching the data for another week or so and, critically, watching that link on the number of cases to the number of people who end up in hospital,” he said.

The Times quotes cabinet source is quoted saying that any political fallout is likely to be limited so long as step four and full reopening of the country takes place before the start of the school holidays in late July.

A spokesperson in the Cabinet Office Office told Eater that “Step four will take place no earlier than 21 June, and at least five weeks after Step three, following a further review of the data against the four tests.

“As before, the government will announce one week in advance whether restrictions will be eased as planned.”

For restaurants in London which reopened for indoor dining on 17 May, the delay is unlikely to cause too much concern. As one restaurant worker recently told Eater, “the only significant change past the 21 June will probably be the return of larger group bookings and a prospective return of the tables that were packed away with the initial [one-metre-plus] spacing rules.”

But while the sun shines and operators can mitigate any lost revenue from social distancing rules indoors with the provision of outdoor service, the last step is of lesser consequence than the governments’ delivering on stage three last month.

Of greater consequence will not be whether or not restaurants have to wait a fortnight to accept group bookings, but whether the government finally does or doesn’t announce that it has a solution to the rent debt accumulated across the hospitality industry during the course of the pandemic. The deadline for them to make that call is now just three weeks away.

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