Boris Johnson has announced tonight that the “full reopening” of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars in England will be delayed by at least four weeks. 21 June 2021, dubbed “freedom day” by some sections of the country, will no longer mark the removal of “all restrictions on social contact.” The fourth of the government’s “four tests” for lockdown easing has not been met, with the four tests as follows: the vaccine program continuing successfully; vaccines being effective in reducing hospitalisation and death; the NHS being overwhelmed by hospitalisations; and risk assessment being changed by a coronavirus variant of concern. There will be a review after two weeks, with Johnson claiming that where 21 June was a “not-before” date, 19 July will be a “terminus date.”
Step three of the coronavirus lockdown roadmap — which saw restaurants and pubs reopen for indoor dining with restrictions in place on 17 May — was the big one for hospitality, but a delay to full reopening is not without its problems. Public health restrictions which limit capacity are necessarily restrictions on trade and therefore revenue; their continuation is a hindrance. Currently, only groups of six (or two households) can gather indoors, with table service / bar service not permitted.
The reason behind the delay is thus: with cases rising in England because of the Delta variant, Johnson said a four-week surge in vaccinations will be deployed, with hospitalisations and deaths caused by that variant overwhelmingly occuring in unvaccinated individuals. England’s vaccination rate is currently down at 330,000 doses per day, while other European countries hit peaks of 1 million per day, but Johnson said that by 19 July, it will aim to have fully vaccinated two-thirds of the adult population and offered under-18s a first dose.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty later emphasised that a “64 percent” increases in cases was causing concern, but the rate of rise in cases is now down to 45 percent, and if this stalling continues it may suggest that for restaurants, only a two-week pause will be necessary. Whitty also emphasised that while “rates [of cases] will be higher” come 19 July, this interim measure was designed to lower those rates’ peak.
While this step was not the one they needed most, restaurants are still facing uncertainty. The government is yet to make a decision on rent debt, which continues to mount even as ministers recognise it can’t just extend the moratorium on evictions. Coronavirus loan repayments, employer furlough contributions and business rate resumptions are close to coming due; and psychologically this pause will feel like a return to the uncertainty of winter 2020, when the country yo-yo’d in and out of restrictions. Health Minister Edward Argar told the BBC that the announcement of delay at 6 p.m. will be matched by assurance of support, but Johnson was not forthcoming on that support. And after nearly 16 months of hesitant communication, evasive messaging, and bizarre policymaking, restaurant workers — largely unvaccinated and most at risk from this new variant — are justifiably uncertain that this little pause will be exactly that.