By Sophie Spedding | Feb 24, 2021
The good news should be that the decision will be based on “data not dates”, according to the Prime Minister.
But hang on, is that the same Boris Johnson who only yesterday spouted: “You have to remember from last year that we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that we did because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality.”
You can feel the ripple of exasperation rolling across the hospitality sector. Not only is there no evidence about extra transmission risk, but hospitality was never ‘fully’ open. If our leader is so ill-informed, what hope is there?
The endless speculation and uncertainty around a reopening schedule is at the heart of the market’s collective frustration, anxiety and even fury, as we witnessed this last week as the patience of some prominent pub leaders boiled over at being fobbed off by junior ministers and civil servants.
That’s why the next few days up to the ‘official’ announcement of Boris Johnson’s much anticipated road map – as well as the weeks after, as the details are likely to emerge – will be vital for the industry to keep hammering home the message that pubs, bars and restaurants not only should be open, but importantly are safe to reopen. It’s a task that, as we have now seen, is not getting any easier.
The first question is why are we still having to make the case, delivering the same arguments we deployed throughout last summer and autumn? The second is should we find new ways of framing them?
Isn’t the evidence strong enough? As a sector, we worked with Government to create the opening protocols last time; we have the insight on customer satisfaction with safety and hygiene measures; we have the data on linking (or rather not linking) transmission to hospitality venues; we know the billions in lost revenue (and tax to the Treasury), the thousands of permanently closed businesses and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.
That all sits with Government, but the Cabinet still appears to want to treat hospitality and leisure differently to the rest of the world of work, and in particular retail.
Is it the messaging, the delivery? UK Hospitality and the other trade bodies have been heroic in raising the profile of hospitality, especially with non-Government politicians and the media.
This is an area we should perhaps be doing things differently. Let’s at least try to marshal public opinion behind hospitality and remind customers of what they are missing. Let’s create short videos for social media, emphasising the positives of going to a restaurant or pub – the fact that it is safe, controlled and a great place to be, and certainly safer than people’s homes. Images of people enjoying themselves, safely seated, and not being drunk. That’s a point I’ll come back to.
Let’s punctuate it with all those hard facts we’ve collected, bullet point by bullet point, including the findings of the latest detailed report from UK Hospitality, complied with CGA, on the Safe Reopening of Hospitality. Remember, our prime minister is famed for not be a detail man, as we saw yesterday. So let’s keep it simple for him as well.
Spell out that for every week and month we wait more jobs and businesses will disappear. The prospect of mass redundancies usually grabs politicians’ attention.
But as I have written before, any concerted campaign like this needs the active participation of the big chains and major food and drink brands – and their creative agencies as well – to pull off something spectacular. We have the talent in our ranks. Let’s also pull in those celebrities who the sector worked with on feeding the nation at the start of the pandemic – oh yes and let’s remind the Government of that too. Shall we try it?
We have to remember, however, that hospitality, or at least those parts that sell alcohol in quantity, still has an image problem. The scenes of pub customers massing outside bars and crowding onto buses, trams and the Underground when the curfew hit before Christmas, even if it was a result of Government mismanagement, provided ample evidence for many in the public, politics and academia that pubs and bars are a problem child, and perhaps need to be shut. That’s what needs to be countered.
In truth, it is a battle that was being fought when I became editor of The Publican newspaper almost 40 years ago. It’s a struggle against the anti-alcohol brigade and health lobby that will continue even when the trade does eventually open.
We are still having to argue the same ground in so many areas. It’s frustrating, and yes we probably could do with mixing up the tactics – even employing the shock variety from time to time.
The two new pieces in the armoury this time are the successful roll out of the vaccines, with around 17 million jabs now administered, and falling infection and death rates. That gives the sector a new angle, and new data, to work with.
The market desperately needs to reopen – and the vaccine apart, we’ll just need to keep hammering home the well-rehearsed messages. So repeat after me: hospitality is safe, hospitality is safe.