Andrew Marr spoke to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove on April 19, stating that hospitality will be among the last to reopen (see the 6 minute mark).

So when will business - and pubs, bars and restaurant in particular - be able to open up again? It’s the question more people are beginning to ask, and the issue that has consumed much of this weekend’s media.

The short answer seems to be ‘no time soon’. The press has been full of speculation, not to say confusion, about the Government’s supposed ‘three-point plan’ to start-up the economy, with talk of traffic-light systems, schools the first to open their doors as early as May 11, and even hope for the eating-out market.

Then came Sunday morning, and senior cabinet member Michael Gove appearing on the Andrew Marr Show (pictured) to put a dampener on everything.

Not true about schools, said Gove. The government did not yet have the information to show it would be safe to lift the restrictions, and anyway hospitality venues would be among the last to have restrictions lifted. So that’s clear then.

The Sunday papers were also packed with column inches detailing the long list of mistakes and failures our political leaders had made during the course of the crisis, a tale of chaos and incompetence at the heart of Government.

With no clear framework or timetable for rebooting Britain yet apparent, and the administration in reactive rather than proactive mode when it comes to communications, it’s not surprising that the void is being filled with speculation and no little wishful thinking. We have to assume we are still in for a long haul.

So what do we know? Yes, the Government does have a three-point plan, that much has been relayed to business groups, we hear. But so far it appears little more than looking at a restart period, then a period of revival, looking at what stimuli, including financial, certain sectors might need, and then the longer term.

At the moment, the Cabinet Office and No 10 are asking business bodies for their views on how to reopen their parts of the economy, and specifically how they could function under specific scenarios, such as under current social distancing restrictions or a looser version. As Michael Gove himself signalled in his TV interview, they are expecting a phased and progressive reopening, with no firm dates being set. So, we seem to be some weeks still off any detailed plan or framework being announced by Government, and then no timetable of when it might be implemented.

What will also be disappointing is that although ministers want industry and business input, they do not seem keen to bring business leaders and market experts into the decision-making process.

It may well be prudent to see how things pan out over the next few weeks, especially watching for a recurrence of infections, but without clarity from Whitehall, it is nonetheless difficult for businesses to start their own planning for life after lock-down, not knowing what restrictions they will have to operate under.

The best assumption is that some form of social distancing will be in place for the foreseeable future. So what would that look like for pubs and restaurants? Not great, is the obvious response.

So it’s not hard to imagine that workplaces and offices opening way before hospitality, as Gove has signposted, that is apart from takeaway food, drive-thrus and delivery services, which are already beginning to reopen now.

Restaurants and pubs are going to have to adapt or stay closed for perhaps way into the autumn. Creating take-away or delivery options would be a first step that many have already taken, along with becoming grocery stores.

Self-service may make a comeback, driven by online pre-ordering and payment. Perspex screens may not be aesthetically pleasing in bars and serving counters, but may be unavoidable, with tables scattered more widely around dining rooms to enable distancing. Personal service may have to take a back-seat for a while. The lessons of how to social distance in kitchens are already being learned by the fast-food sector, and central kitchens feeding hubs may also become a feature of chain life.

Innovative thinking is going to be needed, and I must admit I like the idea of food-trucks being parked in pub gardens, with beer being served out of the pub window. We will see. But until we get more clarity from the centre, all plans will remain hypothetical.

Not everyone is going to be able to adapt though, so the one certainty is that the hospitality sector will be lobbying hard for an extension of furloughing into the summer.

This article was originally published on April 20, 2020 in the MCA.

     

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