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23 July 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:00pm

“One ping away”: how “freedom day” has left the hospitality industry more exposed than ever

As restrictions are lifted and cases soar, the hospitality industry faces the threat of staff shortages and rising uncertainty.

By Glenn Armstrong

When the government’s “freedom day” dawned on the Church Farm Brewery, a small, family-run business in Warwickshire, hopes of the business being able to take off again were quickly disappointed.

Joanna Reynolds, co-owner and director of the brewery, said 19 July began with her husband, the head brewer, self-isolating. The following day they announced their small outside drinking space, the Tap Yard, would not be open this coming Friday (23 July) after four of their five staff had gone into self-isolation.

The Church Farm Brewery, as a supplier to hundreds of pubs in South Warwickshire and having recently opened the Tap Yard, is indicative of a hospitality sector scarred by the pandemic and whose suppliers, businesses and workers have been left in an increasingly precarious position.

“We knew where we were when we were in lockdown,” Joanna told the New Statesman. But now, with the government removing all legal coronavirus restrictions and with cases soaring, many in the industry not only feel unsure about where they are, but also increasingly uncertain about where they are going.

The hospitality industry has lost over 10,000 licensed premises and approximately £87bn in revenue since the start of the pandemic. The huge rise in cases (a 41 percent increase in the seven days before 19 July) and number of people self-isolating has dashed hopes that those losses would be recouped this summer.

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As Stephen Bush has noted, this “pingdemic” is not separate from the government’s pandemic response, but in fact the consequence of the rising cases it has allowed, along with the “freedom day” to which it was committed. As restrictions are lifted and cases soar, it is inevitable that the hospitality industry, which is wholly reliant on in-person working, will face the threat of staff shortages and rising uncertainty.

UKHospitality has reported that up to a fifth of all staff in the industry are self-isolating, forcing businesses to close or reduce hours. Greene King, which runs over 2,500 pubs, hotels and restaurants, has already reported the temporary closure of 33 pubs.

Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality’s chief executive, has said more businesses will be forced to “reduce their operating hours or to close their venues completely”, sentiments echoed by Joanna, who said the pubs her brewery serves are “opening and closing on a weekly basis”.

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UKHospitality, the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the CBI are united in criticising the slow pace of the government’s response to this issue. They are also calling for an end to isolation for those who have been double-vaccinated, with the IoD criticising the ‘”month-long disconnect” between “freedom day” and the proposed 16 August date for easing the isolation rules.

However, given the number of young workers in the hospitality sector, 35 per cent of whom are yet to have their first jab and with others set to wait beyond August to have their second, allowing the double-vaccinated to avoid isolation may not help the industry as immediately as hoped.

The government’s commitment to the 16 August date means that, to survive in the short term, hospitality businesses may well ask their staff to delete or disable the NHS app. Reports of the government advising manufacturers that their staff are not legally obliged to isolate if pinged by the NHS app (as opposed to the legal requirement to isolate if contacted by Test and Trace), may be indicative of how the government deals with the hospitality industry as staff shortages increase.

By doing this, however, the government is muddying the waters around self-isolation, and appearing to care more about responding to the “pingdemic” than the pandemic. Tacitly encouraging deleting or ignoring an app that cost over £35m may remove the annoying “pings”, but it will not stop cases rising. Instead, it will allow the virus to spread without the defence of an isolation system.

The hospitality industry is not just facing the current “pingdemic” crisis, however. A new ONS report also reveals the longer-term challenges. Hospitality businesses now see their futures as highly precarious; for licensed pubs, bars and restaurants the ONS found that businesses’ confidence in their survival in the next three months remains far lower than other sectors and is falling.

[See also: Why “freedom day” is a business gamble as well as a public health one]

The most recent data shows just 15 per cent of these businesses had high confidence that they would survive the coming three months, compared to 47 per cent in all other sectors. The other 85 per cent of hospitality businesses will likely agree with Joanna in saying the industry now faces a “‘horrible state of uncertainty” and, after operating either under lockdown or with clear rules on how to open, the government’s regime of “personal choice” leaves businesses in a grey area, and “grey is very difficult when you want to run a business”.

As Church Farm Brewery has experienced first-hand, the ONS report also found that by May 2021 food and drink businesses were spending about half as much with their suppliers compared to pre-pandemic levels. Without confidence in their ability to stay open or clarity on how to open most safely, many businesses are nervous about placing large orders with their suppliers. Despite “ramping up production” for the opening, Joanna said that many of Church Farm’s clients have cancelled orders as they don’t have the staff to open.

[See also: How many people will delete the NHS app as self-isolation alerts rise?]

As well as being passed up to suppliers, uncertainty and insecurity has also been passed down to workers. Though the ONS has found that job vacancies in hospitality are above pre-pandemic levels, it is very possible that this increase has come mostly from businesses seeking to employ more zero-hours staff to cover potential staff shortages. These staff will be subject to uncertain hours and therefore uncertain incomes.

From suppliers to workers, the hospitality industry did not confidently take off on freedom day. Instead, many will recognise the cloud of insecurity hanging over the sector and will echo Joanna’s remarks that they are just “one ping away” from crisis.