Date: Wed 24 Feb 2021 Peter Martin

Peter Martin

Saving private enterprise

Did health secretary Matt Hancock really suggest in cabinet the idea of a moratorium on all international travel for a month to stop new COVID variants coming into the country?

If national media reports are to be believed, it was only resistance from transport secretary Grant Shapps, arguing that it would cripple trade, that saw the proposal parked.

We may not be getting a full shut-down of our borders, but compulsory quarantine in hotels for some international arrivals and a ban on other specific nationalities still appear to be on the agenda.

These stories all play to the suspicions of many of us that much of Government decision making is kneejerk, without any consideration of wider implications, and that the lockdown hawks in cabinet neither understand, nor care much about, business and the economy.

If the country, and not just our sector, is to fire up again, let alone survive the next months of shutdown, it will need businesses, both corporates and entrepreneurs, to be in a fit state to succeed.

So what can we expect from government in that department, and in particular from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget on March 2?

The prime minister has again promised a ‘bonfire of red tape’, a catchy slogan but hardly a new one, as if that on its own will be enough. The worry is that the government may scrap the wrong regulations, as rules are not always bad.

There’s much talk about pushing back on workers’ rights. But as we are all supposedly in in this together, in my opinion that’s probably the last area ministers should be looking at. It smacks of political dogma.

Hospitality is one of those markets that is going to need its front-line teams feeling secure and looked after, including financially, if it is going to hit the ground running once the restrictions come off. Balancing costs is going to be difficult, but leaders need to pay more than lip service to their people.

Where hospitality could really do with fewer hindrances is around local government restrictions on planning and licensing.

But back to Rishi and his budget. This sector has laid out its detailed list of priorities – extending the VAT reduction, the debt enforcement moratorium, tax and business rates holidays, and reinstating the job retention bonus, among other things. UK Hospitality and the other trade bodies will continue to lobby hard, with individual operators being urged to keep up the pressure by writing to their MPs.

Some good news too is that the prime minister has now launched his Build Back Better Council, consisting of 30 senior executives from across business, which he will co-chair with the Chancellor. There has been some criticism that hospitality only has one representative on the body in Prezzo executive chair Karen Jones CBE. But she is a vastly experienced operator across the restaurant and pub worlds, from start-ups to big corporates, and is already well connected with Government. She gives the industry another important voice, and at least the sector has a seat at the table, not all do.

The Chancellor’s priority now, it is reported, is to protect jobs. A targeted support package for hospitality will help do that. But, our pubs, restaurants and hotels cannot work in a vacuum; they will need the wider economy to function effectively too. The entire business world needs support and incentives, and we should be lobbying for that as well.

We need people to get back to work, tourism to return and international commerce to re-engage, and not be constrained by reactive or dogmatic Government decision-making.

To put those last areas into some context, last year London had almost 10 million fewer international arrivals than would normally be expected, making it one of the worst affected cities on the planet. One consequence is that the capital has seen the number of black cab licences fall by 3,500. US TV channel CNN also reports that American tour firms are likely to cut stay times in UK and London because it won’t be as easy to get in and out of Europe.

That illustrates just one pocket of problems. It is going to be a long haul back, and not just for the capital but our other major cities and regions too.

When it comes to the economy, we really are all in it together.