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Fri 8th Jan 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Why lockdowns don’t work, opportunities await those that make it through, delivering more 
Authors: Paul Chase, Glynn Davis, Toph Ford

Why lockdowns don’t work by Paul Chase

If the definition of stupidity is repeating a failed strategy in the expectation of a different outcome then how should we characterise the plethora of lockdowns, circuit breakers and firebreaks that have featured in the governments’ response to the covid-19 pandemic? I think these failed policies are a combination of panic, bad advice from a narrow group of “experts” and taking refuge in groupthink – “most other countries are doing this, it must be right”.

And how quickly our memories fade – remember the first lockdown in March 2020? It was meant to last just three weeks to “flatten the curve” and “save the NHS”. In fact, the infection curve started to decline before the legally enforced lockdown commenced, but the lockdown got the credit and cemented the belief in government that “lockdowns work”. Well, nine months on, we can reflect on the plethora of lockdown policies, with their different levels of restrictions, and ask whether they have worked.
 
By any measure, these policies have failed to bring the virus under control – as if such a thing were ever possible – and 75,000 deaths and counting is just the most obvious evidence of this failure. At this point in the debate, people usually ask “well, what’s the alternative – what would work?” If you want the right answers, you need to ask the right questions. What does “work” mean? There are those who believe we should pursue a policy of “zero-covid” – nothing less than complete elimination of the virus constitutes success. The SNP government in Scotland and the Welsh Assembly government seem to believe this is the only way forward. The UK government has pursued a “Relief of Mafeking” strategy – keep the enemy at bay until the vaccine cavalry arrives. But the siege of Mafeking lasted a mere seven months – this is set to last much longer, and I am beginning to doubt whether the vaccine really is the cavalry that will lift the siege.
 
At the heart of the failure of lockdown policy is confusion between lockdowns and quarantines. You may recall in February 2020, we quarantined 32 passengers off the cruise ship Diamond Princess in nurses’ accommodation at Arrowe Park hospital, on the Wirral. At the time, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Our NHS staff at Arrowe Park have done a fantastic job providing safe and comfortable care to the people in quarantine. No doubt, the Diamond Princess passengers are very happy to return home to their friends and families now they have got the all-clear, and I’d like to thank them for their co-operation in what could have been a stressful situation. Tackling coronavirus is a national effort, and they have set a good example for the rest of the public, as more people may need to self-isolate themselves at home.”
 
But government-imposed, mass self-isolation at home of the largely healthy population is not the same thing as self-isolation of the sick, let alone a formal quarantine. Quarantine means infected people, or those who might be infected, are kept separate in every way from uninfected people until cured or declared safe, and then they are released. This is not what lockdowns do. A lockdown is simply a forced gathering of people most of whom are healthy. During lockdowns, people are confined to their homes but allowed to go out for essential purposes, for example, to work or visit supermarkets. Workplaces and stores are collection points where large numbers of people are concentrated in a confined space. In Wales, supermarkets were required to seal off aisles that sold so-called non-essential items, thus reducing the space in which people congregated even more. So, lockdowns are not quarantines. Lockdowns concentrate people into fewer areas. They allow people to go outside to mingle for a time and then force them back inside their homes to mingle in confined, warm spaces with no social distancing – conditions ideal for the spread of a respiratory virus.
 
A highly infectious virus will spread much faster when people are forced to spend more time inside together. If one person in a household returns home with the virus, there is a very high chance that everyone else in the household will catch it. If people were at liberty, and therefore more separated, the virus would still spread throughout the community, but more slowly. Lockdowns are based on the false premise that liberty speeds up transmission and lockdowns slow it down. If that were true then we would have an annual flu epidemic every summer, rather than every winter. If you look at the excess deaths in years prior to 2020, it is clear they peak during the winter months – when only the weather forces people inside.
 
The opposite of lockdowns is a combination of quarantine of the sick, which requires effective test and trace; shielding of the elderly and vulnerable and allowing the healthy the liberty to go about their normal lives. This is the way to balance the management of viral transmission with the need to maintain economic activity.
 
All of the above requires competent government that recognises and learns from its mistakes rather than doubling down on them. I think I will leave it there.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

Opportunities await those that make it through by Glynn Davis

Walking through London’s Borough Market with its twinkling lights and buzz of people eating and drinking engaged my senses in a way that had been sorely missed through much of the year. Pushing back the door of Elliot’s restaurant cranked up this experience a few notches as that rush of hot air on my face, aroma of warming ingredients, and the chatter of people enjoying a night out was mixed with the heady expectation of food and drink to satisfy my building appetite that makes dining out such a joyous celebration.

The date was 15 December and I’d made a reservation for dinner at Elliot’s restaurant immediately after Boris Johnson appeared on our TV screens the day before to signal the end of Christmas festivities with the tier system imposing an effective lockdown on London and much of the south east of England.

With no reopening date in sight for hospitality, I did not intend to miss this last opportunity to be handed a menu and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – choosing what to eat and drink. To maximise this experience, I make a point of avoiding looking at the menus of any restaurant ahead of a visit, which annoys my children who prefer the comfort of knowing there will be something at least recognisable for them to eat.

After two courses, my wife and son had to shoot off for a showing of Christmas Carol at the nearby Bridge Theatre. Since there was no way I could call it a day at this point, I promised my daughter a dessert (or even two if she wanted) in order that I could prolong the restaurant experience a little longer and squeeze in another IPA and then a prosecco to finish things off.

The trip to Elliot’s neatly encapsulated all that is glorious about dining out and so it was interesting to read the very next day it had taken on a second unit, in Hackney, east London. This was initially to serve takeaway and home-delivered pizzas, along with a selection of natural wines, and to then expand the offer out to a full restaurant proposition similar to that in Borough Market when conditions allowed in 2021.

The opportunity to take this unit came about when covid-19 prompted the Violet bakery to cancel its plans to create what would have been its second site. This will very much be a feature of 2021 – where the problems and failings of some operators create opportunities for others who have the resources to come out of this disastrous period with their businesses still standing.

Certainly, the numbers are pretty stark already. Closures of hospitality firms increased by 76% to 1,621 last year compared with 922 in 2019, according to the Centre for Retail Research. And, sadly, there will be many more to follow when the furlough ends at the end of April, the business rates holiday and the 5% VAT rate come to an end, and the issue of the massive backlog of unpaid rent presents itself and demands some sort of resolution.

For those like Elliot’s that ride out the storm, the opportunities will not only come from the availability of vacant units but also from the reduction in capacity in the market. It is fair to say that much of the industry will probably be relying on this to enable them to return to some sort of normality and, most crucially, get a sniff of what has been an exceedingly rare commodity through 2020 – profitability.

This is certainly the case with The Restaurant Group as its chief executive Andy Hornby has stated if the business can reach 80% of the sales it achieved in 2019, it will be in a better position because of the capacity that has now left the industry. On a per restaurant/pub basis, he suggested the company would be in much better shape. Having not been able to contribute to the likes of Elliot’s or The Restaurant Group’s coffers since mid-December, I, like many other people, will be looking to make amends when they are able to reopen their doors again.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Delivering more by Toph Ford 

Here are my insights on 12 key delivery food trends for 2021.

Deliveries through the day
The UK food delivery market was growing at a significant rate before the covid-19 crisis and will become even bigger and more important to hospitality operators this year. New consumer habits formed during 2020 will drive growth for delivery occasions in between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. These include sweet treats, healthier treats and drinks, such as hand-spun milk shakes. These small, but growing dayparts, will offer operators more opportunity to be busy with deliveries across the day.

Virtual delivery brands
Move over dark kitchens as 2021 looks set to be the year for big growth of online-only virtual delivery brands that offer a simple and cost-effective way for existing restaurant and pub operators to get into delivery sales.

With virtual delivery brands, operators can use their own existing kitchen, equipment and team to prep orders to sell through delivery aggregators or to offer click and collect and delivery through their own website and phone orders.

Value is essential
Consumers aren’t necessarily looking for cheap deals, but offers that feel like good value. Think interesting combos, meal deals and sharers that will appeal to the increasing number of people eating delivery meals as a group at home as a social occasion.

Affordable luxury and treats
Food and drink are now consumers’ day-to-day affordable luxuries and, when ordering meal deliveries, people are increasingly willing to spend more and order more things. To capitalise on this, operators need to make it easy for customers to add things to their orders, upgrade their meals, make it bigger or more fun or interactive, such as ordering a sharer to enjoy with a friend.

Breakfast/lunch deliveries
With a significant number of workers now based at home some or all of the time, breakfast and lunch deliveries will grow. The high street journey consumers previously had during the working day, including picking up breakfast on the way to the office or popping out for lunch will become a bigger part of delivery.

The boom in breakfast seen on the high street in the past ten years will move on to delivery. It won’t grow as quickly, or be as big sales-wise, as other delivery dayparts but it will gain momentum this year.

Safe adventures
Customers aren’t likely to take too many risks when spending in 2021, so comfort and recognisable dishes such as pizza, fried chicken and burgers will remain key. But doing these classics differently/cleverly is important. For example, virtual delivery brand Mac & Co, www.eatmacandco.com, offers mac ’n’ cheese with a range of eight different toppings, such as burrata and green pesto and smoked chicken and roasted chorizo. A secret recipe seasoning for customers to sprinkle as a topping adds texture and interactivity for customers. Differences can also be created through how dishes are labelled and packaged.

Delivering an experience
“Experience” has topped trends lists in recent years, but certainly for part of 2021, it will be as much about operators delivering an experience for customers at home, as in their venues. Delivering an experience that drives people to share pics of it on social media should be the aim. Think great packaging (a “gift”), playlists on websites for people to enjoy when eating and interactive items, such as pour over signature sauces. Little touches and surprises that help make the delivery experience more fun and interactive are the way forward.

Powerful packaging
Delivery packaging looks set to make more of a punch in 2021, with key trends including packaging that looks good and helps deliver an experience, including helping dishes to feel like a family of products. Expect to see more inventive packaging used by great operators this year. But, most importantly, packaging also still needs to keep food warm and well-presented during transit, with use of tools such as business-branded greaseproof paper continuing to rise.

Sustainability will need to come back onto the agenda for operators this year. The industry has done some great work on this key issue in the past decade and it needs to ensure it keeps pushing this work on. The challenges of the pandemic have seen it become less key to consumers in the past year, but they will soon return to considering it a business imperative.

Tell your customers about the investment you have made in sustainable packaging and why because this will help them view your business positively.

Sweet treats
Going against the health trend of recent years, driven by the continuing challenges of the covid-19 pandemic, customers are also looking for food that delivers an affordable treat and gives them some comfort and fun. Treats such as warm cookies, hot waffles, desserts like ice cream tubs and indulgent shakes will become more in-demand for delivery. Ordering sweet treats as gifts for others also looks set to become a bigger trend. But operators will need to rethink the way they present sweet treats so customers get the same memorable experience at home as they would dining out.

Drinks that deliver
From interesting cocktails, milkshakes and smoothies to innovative non-alcoholic alternatives, the demand for delivery drinks is set to continue, with people still wanting the experts preparing their drinks for them when dining and socialising at home. During this current lockdown, only soft drinks are allowed for click and collect and takeaway, so ensure you have some tempting options to drive purchase.

Health and well-being
Following the turmoil of 2020, dietary ideas will take a back seat for now. The drive for health will return, but the main health focus for 2021 will remain on meat reducing, so offering appealing plant-based options for delivery will be key.

Pride in British
The pandemic has engendered a renewed support for British suppliers and local businesses, something hospitality operators should be looking to capitalise on through their marketing. It is also important that pub and restaurant owners continue to highlight the British businesses they support themselves on their websites and social media.
Toph Ford is brand director of virtual delivery brands company Restaurant Brands Collective 

 
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