From midnight tonight (17 October), households across the capital will be barred from mixing in any indoor setting including pubs, restaurants and bars, after it was decided that the city’s Coronavirus alert level would be raised from Tier 1 ('medium') to Tier 2 ('high').
While hospitality businesses will be able to continue operating under the 'high' risk tier (subject to the 10pm curfew currently imposed nationwide), the restriction on households being able to mix indoors is expected to cause a further hit to sales at what is already a very volatile time for the sector.
“We've gone from having a fully booked Saturday lunch and being very busy to already having 40% of future bookings cancelled,” says James Cochran, chef patron of Islington restaurant 12:51.
“The tier system is worse than in lockdown, as at least consumers and businesses had clarity then.
“Right now, the Government again is shirking their responsibility and instead, consumer confidence plummets and we face cancellations.”
According to analysis of official Government data by the real estate adviser Altus Group, 3,640 pubs and 7,556 restaurants across London’s 32 boroughs and the City of London will be affected by the decision to raise the alert level.
They include Pali Hill in Fitzrovia, the London debut for Indian restaurant group Azure Hospitality, which only officially opened its doors earlier this week.
“Restaurants and bars are how cities connect and meet, especially a city like London,” says co-founder Rahul Khanna.
“I don't understand the banning the mixing of households in a safe setting that have followed rules and invested to make their premises Covid-safe, including the Government-sanctioned Track and Trace.
“In a time where social meetings are already so limited, the joy of seeing a friend and breaking bread are some of the only pleasures we have afforded to us and one that we were glad to be able to facilitate.
“This ruling shows that the Government has little understanding of how restaurants have been operating, or what they offer to the public.”
Calls for support
Marc Summers, founder of Middle Eastern-style vegetarian restaurant Bubala in Spitalfields, wonders how restaurants would be expected to police the new restrictions.
“We’re already seeing cancellations for this Saturday, and we will see further cancellations for the bookings of three or more people in the coming days,” he says.
“It will be extremely difficult to police the new laws and again, puts us in a difficult position, similar to pre-lockdown, when the overall feeling was that it’s not safe to eat out.
“The constant change from one tier to the other will only lead to confusion amongst guests and make it near impossible to prepare for.
“Without support from the Government, there is going to be many more casualties.”
The need for a support package to help protect hospitality businesses already reeling from the impact to trade caused by the recent implementation of the ‘rule of six’ and the 10pm curfew is something many industry voices have demanded.
Trade body UKHospitality warned that moving London into Tier 2 will be catastrophic for its hospitality businesses, unless improved job support and grants are made available immediately.
It said that unless job support available under the 'very high' risk tier, which allows businesses to claim a grant covering two-thirds of employee's wages while they remain closed, is applied to those businesses in lower 'high' risk tier, the sector is facing widespread job losses within weeks.
“Being moved into Tier 2 is a curse for businesses," said Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality chief executive.
"They will be trapped in a no man’s land of being open, but with severe restrictions that will significantly hit custom, all while unable to access the job support available in tier three. It is the worst of both worlds for businesses.”
Anger and exhaustion
From many restaurateurs, the anger felt as a result of the Government’s inability to support the sector is palpable.
“What a fucking surprise, Boris [Johnson] and his Government shirking their responsibility when it comes to ensuring there is a hospitality industry post-Covid,” says Tom Brown, chef patron of Hackney’s Cornerstone.
“The tier system doesn't help us, or diners.
“We've done everything to ensure Cornerstone is safe, so if it's not, then they need to go into fucking lockdown, not this cop out again.
“We might as well shut the whole industry down now, looks like that's what they want.”
Others are just exhausted.
“The Tier 2 approach is essentially a return to the Government's response from around mid-March,” says John Devitt, co founder of Japanese udon noodle concept Koya, which has sites in Soho and The City.
“Yet again, we are all limping on without Government support. It’s basically a virtual lockdown without support for the industry. I don’t have the stomach to complain anymore.”
Some questioned the wisdom of allowing people to sit in close proximity to others but did not allow people to meet their friends.
"As a brunch cafe we’ve been largely unaffected by the curfew and other restrictions, meaning we thankfully have kept our whole team in employment, but with the new tier 2 restrictions and people not being able to meet others from outside their household, I’m expecting to be operating at about 50% capacity," says Kate Frobisher, MD and owner at Urban Pantry in Chiswick.
This is unsustainable and brings us back to the brink of the earlier lockdown. The ridiculous thing is that you’re not allowed to sit a table with friends but you are allowed to sit in a small restaurant with heaps of other people from multiple households, there’s no sense in it…"
Beyond the capital
London is not the only area to be impacted.
Other areas set to move into the 'high' risk tier this weekend include Essex, Elmbridge, Erewash, Barrow-in-Furness, York, North East Derbyshire and Chesterfield.
Piers Baker, from the Sun Inn on the Essex/Suffolk border and Church Street Tavern in Colchester, said he was already seeing cancellations.
“It is ridiculous,” he says.
“There are slight increases [in cases] in Southend as far as I can tell. How it manifests itself for the whole county I have no idea.”