By Peter Martin  |  Mar 09, 2021

Garden Party Politics

Pub and restaurant leaders might be unhappy, if not in downright despair, about Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, but the signs are he is not in the mood to change gear or direction.

According to the influential political website Politico, Downing Street is pretty pleased with reaction to Monday’s announcement. Johnson’s team, it appears, had expected Tory backbenchers to have kicked up more of a fuss over the sluggish pace of the plan.

While The Sun and Daily Mail were critical, with the latter calling for “freedom, not a long limp out of lockdown”, middle-of-the-road media heavyweights like The Times and Financial Times were generally sympathetic.

More crucially, the public is onside. A snap YouGov poll found 46% of the population felt the government’s plan got the balance ‘about right’, with 26% saying it was going too quickly, and just 16% agreeing it was moving too slowly. A similar Savanta Comres poll pointed to 52% being satisfied with the roadmap.

All that will, rightly or wrongly, give the Government confidence it is on the right track. Does it care what business, and the hospitality world in particular, thinks? I think we know the answer. Let’s face it this administration has been inconsistent and unreliable throughout the pandemic. So why should we expect any change now?

This leaves the hospitality sector, and more importantly individual businesses, with some difficult decisions. It is going to take leaps of both faith and imagination for some pub and restaurant companies to see it through to the summer – first to reach the April 12 and May 17 staging posts, and then the final tantalising date of June 21 when we must all hope all lockdown restrictions are finally lifted.

It would be understandable and unsurprising if some decided now that the journey will be too costly and risky to even embark on, and cut their losses now, even with all the pain and anguish that will bring. Some have already come to that realization.

The rest are going to need their own individual route maps to see them through, and to use every asset and bit of ingenuity they possess into the bargain.

The sector will hope for extra support from next week’s budget. Extension of the VAT cut, business rates relief and the furlough scheme look likely to be available, but how much more is debatable.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s online ‘Conversation’ with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay last week was instructive on a number of levels, not least that those were the issues that were happily raised. More worrying was the impression that the choreographed exchange between the two was designed to give, of a Government having done ‘brilliantly’ in supporting hospitality through lockdown. That in turn begs the question of whether there is any more aid coming the sector’s way.

Although many in hospitality deemed it a PR disaster, for the wider public audience (and Ramsay is a star attraction) it probably served its purpose of showing the supportive side of Government, no matter how false we may think that is. This week has again starkly highlighted the fact that neither Government nor the media really have any idea of the cost incurred every day by businesses just to stay closed.

So where else to look for assistance, and even partnership? Perhaps the focus for individual businesses should shift to local rather than central government? The trade bodies will keep watch on the national scene.

Most pubs and restaurants don’t have an outdoor area, so the promised April concessions will seem irrelevant. But most of those that do are likely to take advantage of their gardens, terraces and courtyards when the April milestone is reached and outside service should be allowed again. Many operators have already invested heavily outdoors, with pods, heaters, awnings and elaborate lighting.

Local councils need to be engaged with and lobbied to ease regulations to allow more to take advantage, even in poor weather, as happened in many city areas last year. We need to see street closures and tables spreading out into squares and pavements, setting up temporary communal beer gardens, even, for those without them to join in. Focusing on the local, encouraging local councilors to be creative, being collaborative, to gain operational support, might just help. Remember there are elections in many local council areas in May.

This is no panacea, and just one area where co-operation might be encouraged. But the industry will need these sort of staging posts to boost confidence and connection with the public on the way to May and then June.

It is going to be an arduous and slow journey. The opening targets are later than most had hoped for. The only hope of a speedier arrival is if the data about the effectiveness about vaccines continue to improve, as that is the only data Government appears interested in.

For once this prime minister may actually emulate his more illustrious predecessor and ‘not be for turning’. That’s the reality we may just have to cope with.