Johnson accused of 'throwing hospitality under the bus' as Covid curbs return

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Boris Johnson accused of 'throwing hospitality under the bus to save his skin' as Covid restrictions announced vaccine passports mask wearing worki...

Related tags: Coronavirus, Vaccine passport, face masks, Plan B, Government

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of 'throwing hospitality under the bus to save his own skin' as he announced the introduction of tougher Covid curbs including 'vaccine passports'.

Last night (9 December), Johnson confirmed that England will move to 'Plan B' restrictions amid concern over the spread of the Omicron Covid variant in the UK.

Under the rules, face coverings will become compulsory in most public indoor venues, excluding hospitality; working from home guidance will be reintroduced; and NHS Covid Passes (more commonly referred to as 'vaccine passports') will become mandatory for entry into nightclubs and settings where large crowds gather including unseated indoor events with 500 or more attendees, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees and any event with 10,000 or more attendees.

The sober announcement of a reintroduction of restrictions comes during the crucial Christmas trading period, a highly consequential month that can be the difference between a good or bad year overall for businesses.

Food-to-go and other city-based operators that are heavily reliant on office trade, having clawed back business over the past months, are likely to be worst hit, particularly as a result of the 'work from home' order.

The restrictions will begin to come into force from Friday (10 December), with 'vaccine passports' set to be introduced next Wednesday (15 December). While not expected to stop Omicron spreading, it is hoped the measures will delay the peak until later next month, when more people will have had vaccine boosters.

Speaking at a Covid-19 press conference, Johnson said: "It’s become increasingly clear that Omicron is growing much faster than the previous Delta variant, and it’s spreading rapidly all around the world."

However, as concerns grow that hospitality businesses will face another winter washout, voices across the sector have levelled accusations at the Prime Minister that the decision to introduce these restrictions now is intended primarily to distract from media reports of multiple parties taking place in Downing Street during the height of lockdown last December. 

"The UK Government have twice ruled out 'vaccine passports' before twice changing their mind," says Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), which represents 1,200 independent bars, clubs and live music venues across the UK.

"The mixed public health messages this week that have been coming out of the Government have arrived at the worst possible time – the pre-Christmas period is absolutely crucial for our sector. And now it is announced damaging vaccine passports are to be implemented. Far from ‘saving’ Christmas, the Prime Minister has given our sector the horrible present of more pain for businesses desperately trying to recoup losses from earlier in the pandemic."

Kill notes that the Government’s own report on the subject, published back in June​ by The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, concluded that 'vaccine passports' wouldn’t have a significant impact on virus transmission.

"You do, therefore, have to question the timing and rationale for this announcement," he continues. "Is this sound evidence-based public policy making or is this an attempt to move the news agenda on from a damaging story about the Downing Street Christmas party?

"It feels that nightclubs and bars have been thrown under the bus by the Prime Minister for him to save his own skin."

A 'catastrophic extinction event'

Many operators have reported a further collapse in bookings since the Prime Minister's announcement. 

Chef Gary Usher, who operates six restaurants under his Elite Bistros group, wrote on Twitter​ that he had taken 'hundreds and hundreds' of cancellations, including one party of 70 people.

He said: "At Elite Bistros we’ve done everything by the book with Covid and tried to do the right thing constantly closing the restaurants and following guidelines, but personally I don’t now support Plan B because I don’t respect or trust anyone making the decisions. It’s all bullshit now."

Recent data shows that bookings have been steadily declining as fears over the Omicron variant have grown.

Bloomberg​ analysis​ of OpenTable restaurant bookings data reveals that reservations have fallen since the new variant emerged in late November.

For the week ending 3 December, the five-day weekday average of diners was down 1.19% compared with the equivalent week in 2019.

The previous week, bookings were 10% ahead of 2019 levels. It was the first time the measure has been negative in over six months, since the week ending May 14.

Street Feast founder Jonathan Downey, who created the Hospitality Union action group last year to deal with the massive disruption to the industry caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, described the introduction of Plan B as a 'catastrophic extinction event'.

"This is another catastrophic extinction event for so many independent businesses that have been hanging on to make the most of the vital pre-Christmas trading period when often 25% of sales are generated," he wrote on Twitter​.

Pleas for financial support

While the Prime Minister encouraged Christmas parties to go ahead, despite the new restrictions, trade bodies have warned that the measures will significantly impact consumer confidence, and have called for a new financial support package to help see businesses through the winter. 

“Make no mistake, this is a huge blow for our sector as it further undermines consumer confidence and is devastating for pubs based near offices and in town centres," says Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA)

“The festive period is crucial to the recovery of our sector, so these restrictions could not have come at a more important trading time. They threaten the viability of pubs who will lose vital revenue over the Christmas period and so the Government will need to look at providing support."

UKHospitality has joined forces with Croydon BID, Mayor of London and Boxpark to call for an urgent review of financial support.

The group is urging Government to provide a funding package to soften the blow to Christmas trading from new Covid guidelines by redirecting unspent grants available to the sector, or by introducing new alternatives such as a discretionary fund to be administered by local authorities.

“While the Government clearly acknowledges that hospitality is safe and can continue to host celebrations in the lead up to Christmas, the measures announced today will significantly impact consumer confidence and be particularly devastating to city and town centre venues," says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality.

"As such, they risk devastating the hospitality sector amid its most important time of the year.  We therefore desperately need support if we are to survive this latest set of restrictions and urge the government to stand behind our industry. That means full business rates relief, grants, rent protection and extended VAT reductions.

"Anything less would prove catastrophic.”

Related topics: Business & Legislation

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