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The Restaurant World Is Beginning to Recover But the Impact of COVID-19 Is Far From Done

A new ONS report shows how hospitality — one of the worst hit sectors — is beginning to recover from the impact of coronavirus while beginning to feel the impact of Brexit

A dining room ready for service, with chefs working in the kitchen at the back end. Ola Smit

A new report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) details the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality sector: restaurants, pubs, cafes, bars, and some accommodation services like hotels and campsites. The picture it paints is simultaneously bleak and encouraging: The novel coronavirus pandemic hit hospitality as hard as any sector in England. Recovery is beginning, but the deferred crisis of Brexit and the fresh pressure of test, trace, and isolate rules occasioned by step four of England’s lockdown roadmap are both beginning to bite.

Below are the key findings from the ONS report into the impact of COVID-19 on restaurants and their workers:

Hospitality is one of the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19

In April 2020, just under 1,650,000 restaurant, pub, bar, and cafe workers were on furlough as the first national lockdown closed restaurants for indoor dining. While that has fallen to just under 590,000 employees furloughed at the end of May 2021, those 590,000 still represent a quarter of everyone on furlough at that time. Meanwhile, revenue across hospitality (as defined by the ONS) remained 25 percent down in May 2021, year-on-year.

If restaurants have had it tough, pubs have had it really tough

The report bears out a more nebulous feeling of difficulty for pubs, particularly during the era of the tier system and “substantial meal” rules around scotch eggs. The ban on table service, which venues can decide to reintroduce from 19 July, coupled with those interventions, has meant that while overall revenue for hospitality venues is down 25 percent, for pubs the figure is 39 percent.

Restaurant and pub suppliers are still struggling

Shutting down hospitality effectively shut down many suppliers — from meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and beer to cleaning products and more. While some of the most well-known and well connected were able to reconfigure their business to go direct-to-consumer, the average value of payments from hospitality businesses to suppliers remains below half of what it was in February 2020, having plummeted as low as 40 percent in the first and third lockdown.

Restaurants might be reopening, but workers’ hours aren’t seeing a full resurgence

With the reopening of restaurants staggered — first takeaway only, then outdoor dining, then indoor — workers’ hours are yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Where the average hours worked in January to March 2020 was 25 per week, that figure is only at 19 as of May 2021, and fell as low as 13 in spring 2020. With that fall not evenly distributed, a significant proportion will be accounted for by people being out of work entirely, either losing jobs or being placed on furlough.

Job vacancies are rising steeply as COVID-19 and Brexit intertwine

Between December 2020 and February 2021 — the months of winter lockdown — job vacancies in hospitality businesses were around 19,000. Upon indoor reopening on 17 May this year, the figure is 102,000. This is a long time coming, with both Brexit itself and the political messaging around it preventing many European hospitality workers from coming to England and making many more feel unwelcome while COVID-19 was putting millions on furlough. While the “staff shortage” labelling of a complex situation falsely implies that it’s a simple numbers game — absent of reflections on whether long hours for low pay in environments known for abuse are worth it — there is an imbalance in supply and demand.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over

“Confidence” — a metric for businesses’s certainty on whether or not they will survive the next three months — has dipped as of May 2021. As of mid-July 2021, with all COVID-19 restrictions legally lifted but many remaining in place, either at the will of service providers or businesses, the always false notion of “freedom day” is firmly in the dust. This fourth step of England’s lifting of coronavirus laws was always that — a measured fourth step in what now feels likely to be a five step process — neither the much vaunted casting off of all restrictions nor the “dangerous and unethical experiment” that partisan groups — whether politically motivated, drawing on questionable science, or both — on either side of an incredibly complex situation purport it to be.

While the return of bar service is a significant boon to pubs, for restaurants, the legal removal of “one metre plus” social distancing is much less significant than step three, when indoor dining resumed in May. While cases are rising, as expected by step three projection, vaccination has vastly reduced the risk of severe consequences — but many restaurant workers are not yet vaccinated. Somewhere between false hope and false doom, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars are moving forward, knowing that while things are getting better, there remains a long way to go.