Restaurants are teetering on the brink of collapse… the Christmas Covid guidance from Whitehall is vague, muddled and frightening, writes CODE hospitality founder ADAM HYMAN

A perfect storm of Covid crises is converging on the hospitality industry. In the wake of 2020’s disastrous December lockdowns and this year’s frustrating mixed messages from the Government, many restaurants, pubs and hotels are on the brink.

As a restaurant consultant involved in trade across the country, I hear all manner of concerning stories.

One restaurateur tells me that three big firms cancelled their Christmas work parties at his venue within the past 24 hours. 

In each case, it’s the same story – executives are worried about how their festivities might be perceived on social media.

Not only is there a concern that their employees might catch or spread the virus, but there’s a wider fear that this could result in bad publicity. It’s all about perceptions.

In the wake of frustrating mixed messages from the Government, one restaurateur said three big firms cancelled their Christmas work parties within the past 24 hours (stock image)

In the absence of firm guidance from Whitehall, bosses are erring on the side of caution. 

I believe they would be happy to go ahead with their parties as planned, if only the official advice was unequivocal.

Instead, we have a ridiculous situation where the Prime Minister is telling people to ‘live their lives’ while the Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey is warning there ‘shouldn’t be much snogging under mistletoe’. 

Dr Jenny Harries, the health protection chief, added to the confusion by saying that people should not socialise ‘when we don’t particularly need to’, whatever that means.

It’s vague, it’s muddled and it’s frightening. The result is that major corporations are opting to cancel their bookings and, for the restaurants and pubs that everyone loves, that is disastrous.

And yet we should be in a far stronger position compared to this time last year. Then, there were no vaccines – now, most people have been double-jabbed, with millions already getting their booster.

For most in the hospitality industry, December’s custom is crucial. It’s not unusual for businesses to make a full third of their annual revenue in the month or so around Christmas.

This should be the busiest time of the year. It has been thrown into chaos by Government decisions that often feel as if they were made on the spur of the moment – and which leave everyone reeling. 

The Prime Minister is telling people to ‘live their lives’ while the Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey (pictured) is warning there ‘shouldn’t be much snogging under mistletoe’

Most are still trying to get back on their feet after the long closures of the past 20 months.

In addition, there is uncertainty over VAT on dining out, which might or might not return to 20 per cent next year (it’s currently at 12.5 per cent). And there’s the looming end of the rent moratorium, due to finish in March.

All this leaves businesses unable to plan for the future – and in any sector, that can be fatal. Staffing is a constant headache: Should managers take on more front-of-house staff and chefs… even if they can find them?

Individuals are anxious too. At the moment, most customers seem to be holding their nerve with small bookings for tables of four or six friends and family.

But everyone is aware that Christmas last year was all but banned as Covid surged. Above all, people want to prevent that from happening again. 

Many might easily decide to stay at home instead. Irresponsible or unclear guidance about kissing under the mistletoe, for example, risks tipping that balance.

What we dread above all is a repeat of last year’s ludicrous regulations, with a partial curfew. Diners and drinkers were turned outside at 10pm and left to mill around in wet, cold weather, jostling for taxis or crowding on to buses.

Many of them went home for impromptu parties, which carried a far greater risk of spreading the virus than the orderly atmosphere of a pub or restaurant. 

That was madness, as was the controversy over Scotch eggs – did they constitute a full meal, and if so, could a pub justify serving alcohol to diners who ordered one?

The last thing we need is any further chaos. Businesses are clinging on by their fingernails. If we can get through Christmas and New Year, without more draconian restrictions or official fearmongering, I think the industry can begin to recover.

But many businesses are one scare away from collapse.

Adam Hyman is the founder of CODE hospitality. 

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