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Wed 13th Jan 2021 - Legal Briefing

An industry ready to serve by Christopher Grunert

Monday, 4 January 2021, served to be the first working day of the year for many people. Children returned to school and the welcome relief of a new year kicked things into swing. Hope, optimism and excitement were at the forefront of my mind and I truly believed 2021 would be filled with opportunity… of course, due to the consequences of Christmas celebrations and rapid spread of the new covid strain, Boris declared a third national lockdown. Once again, the hospitality sector took a deep breath and prepared for another difficult few months.

The impact on everyday people is evident, and the closure of these premises could lead to significant loss of jobs. In a recent interview for Radio 4’s Today programme, Marston’s chief executive Ralph Findlay highlighted the importance of hospitality jobs in the economy. Marston’s employs more than 14,000 people, with 7,000 of those employees under the age of 25. Hospitality provides a route for young people to develop early working skills and build a well-paid career. The significance of this cannot be underestimated and, if jobs are lost, it will drastically affect the prospects of our young people. 

Despite such a depriving 2020, we have already received several instructions from clients relating to new developments and events for the coming summer and autumn. The indomitable spirit, creativity and enthusiasm of the industry never fails to impress. Unfortunately for some, the latest setback could be the final straw and some businesses may never reopen under current management. I am optimistic that hospitality, as a whole, will bounce back as it has done many times before but not without further pain. 

When pubs reopened on 4 July 2020, many in the industry had gone to great lengths and expense to make their premises as “covid-safe” as possible. Infection rates throughout the summer remained low and the general public were allowed to enjoy a small sense of normality in these venues. In the past year hospitality has transformed itself, possibly even more so than other sectors, to promote social distancing and meet high standards of regulation. Anyone who has visited a pub since July or participated in the Eat Out To Help Out scheme will certainly attest to this.

The additional restrictions on the industry were darkly predictable and have provided extra strain. The latest lockdown now prohibits pubs from selling takeaway alcohol unless an order is made remotely and delivered to the customer away from the premises. We understand this was intended to deter people from congregating outside with their drinks. A risk that is not apparently present at off-licences or supermarkets.

This concern has stemmed from reports during the summer of groups gathering in neighbouring parks and other public spaces after collecting their take-out drinks from pubs. This was a rare occurrence and often the “vicinity” was stretched by enforcement authorities when describing the situation. The fact that we are now in the dead of winter appears to have been deemed irrelevant. As a Geordie, I can confirm the weather is so inclement we are digging out our light linen jackets. Nobody has a desire to remain outside for long. Once again, the industry has been singled out and these measures appear illogical and punitive. 

Restrictions should always be based on evidence and not anecdotes. Recently, McDonalds decided to suspend dine-in and walk-in takeaways until safety procedures were reviewed. These are the actions of a responsible operator that sets an example for others while remaining in control of their own business practices. This commitment does not relate to the type of product they sell but just the common practicalities of social distancing and creating a safe working environment. I believe alcohol off-sales should not have been treated any differently.

The vaccine rollout has provided the UK with a light at the end of the tunnel but we are far from out of the woods. The further £9,000 grant from the chancellor is welcome but is simply not enough to keep businesses afloat. 

A clear route back to normality is required; both in terms of hospitality and the general restrictions. We will exit this lockdown in a different position than what we previously found ourselves in; we are now far better armed. In addition to the critical vaccine that will slowly allow more freedoms, the industry has also gathered an enormous amount of experience in trading in a socially distanced and covid-safe manner. This knowledge is held by workers who are now experts in dealing with the difficult circumstances. They must be protected if the industry is to harness this skilled workforce for a dynamic relaunch. 

I ask you to consider your last visit to a retail outlet. Were you escorted from the door to your own freshly sanitised set of shelves socially distant from other customers? Were your purchases brought to you while you sat waiting? Were you greeted by a masked team member inviting you to apply hand sanitiser and use your smartphone to “check in”? Was the behaviour of your fellow customers monitored with social distancing measures appropriately enforced?

I suspect not. Each sector faces their own challenges but there is no doubt the overwhelming majority of restaurants, pubs and bars have learnt to adapt successfully to their new situation and create safe social environments. It is frustrating that hospitality has been singled out for stricter measures when they should instead be highlighted as examples for others to follow. 

The current prohibition of off-sales and the arbitrary 10pm curfew should be among the first measures to be reviewed and reversed; closely followed by the evidential basis for the need to have a Scotch egg with a pint.

It appears the desire to enjoy hospitality services has not withered despite the elongated period of closure. The industry now has the experience, systems, infrastructure and workforce ready to satisfy this. The sector has made great sacrifices during the pandemic but now it is time to let all that has been learnt come into play. We must see the government and its ministers work with the industry to establish the first small steps to get hospitality back on its feet. Best wishes for 2021.
Christopher Grunert is a partner at John Gaunt & Partners
John Gaunt & Partners is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

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