‘It will be like Christmas on steroids, but we’re not in a position to take advantage,” says Paul Askew, chef-patron of the Art School restaurant in Liverpool.
On 19 July the government will sweep away restrictions on trading for pubs, restaurants and other hospitality businesses in England, with the hope of kickstarting the economy. But many will still struggle to benefit due to continuing Covid safety measures, staff shortages and supply issues.
The changes will enable the reopening of one in five hospitality businesses that must currently legally remain closed, including nightclubs, music venues and conference centres, and help pubs and restaurants too small to operate profitably under the current social-distancing rules. It could be a shot in the arm for businesses that have been subject to months of closures and are having to subsist on government support measures, such as a business rates holiday and furlough payments for staff, which have already begun to be reduced.
However, many restaurants, pubs and bars will continue to trade from fewer tables and keep protective measures such as face masks for staff, amid fears of being shut down by a Covid outbreak and difficulties in getting hold of enough workers to fully reopen.
Covid has only added to the problems caused by Brexit, which has made it tougher to bring in EU workers who make up a high proportion of the hospitality workforce. The trade body UKHospitality estimates that up to one third of the industry workforce are off work self-isolating at present, with numbers rising.
Askew says demand for tables at the Art School is high, as people want to step out for long-delayed celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries or treat themselves after a tough 15 months.
But the fine-dining restaurant is operating only 75% of its usual tables and capping bookings. That situation will continue after 19 July, with serving staff also continuing to wear masks, as he is short-handed and in fear of anyone getting sick or coming into contact with a Covid case.
He would normally have 35 staff but is currently operating with 25 and struggling to recruit after losing seven workers who returned home to France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, while four others remain on furlough and are not ready to return.
On Father’s Day weekend last month, the restaurant had to turn away 300 booked diners, when it was forced to close for three days after key staff had to self-isolate.
“I lost about £30,000 in revenue. You can’t do that too many times. The pressure is gigantic,” says Askew.
“We don’t have the capacity to bring in staff [if someone is sick or isolating]: we are too thin. There is nobody on the bench,” he says.
“It’s a constant conflict for many of us. We’re desperate to improve cash flow and revenue after the last 15 months but desperate not to lose our brilliant staff.”
The restaurant has already put up wages by 10% this year but says the number of applicants for jobs is much lower than usual; also, many are not experienced and balk at the work expected of them.
The Art School is far from alone. More than half (51%) of hotel and catering firms were looking for new staff in the second quarter of the year, with about three-quarters of those reporting difficulties in recruiting, according to the British Chambers of Commerce’s quarterly recruitment outlook survey.
Hospitality businesses have put up wages, opened summer schools and are even offering referral bonuses of more than £1,000 as they struggle to draw in enough workers, even before 19 July in England and the potential reduction of restrictions in Scotland on 9 August. Northern Ireland is set to ease restrictions on 26 July, while Wales has said it will review restrictions on 15 July.
The situation is not only affecting staff in dining and drinking establishments but also their supply chain, adding to the cost of restocking fridges and wine cellars. A shortage of delivery drivers, field workers and abattoir teams has only fuelled the inflation on food and drink coming from the EU caused by new bureaucracy related to Brexit.
Prices of wine, olive oil and specialist foods such as fish roe have risen more than 10% as a result of the new import rules, while supplies can prove volatile.
At the White Rabbit pub in Oxford they have been stockpiling food before the next phase of reopening to help offset any problems. “We didn’t have a freezer 18 months ago but now we have four chest freezers to help deal with any supply issues,” says Ed Whinney, the general manager.
Some operators have urged the government to provide more guidance for businesses in England to help keep customers and staff safe and happy, and ease visa restrictions on EU workers.
The government has mooted tweaking the NHS test and trace app so that fewer people in England get alerts and has pledged to change the rules from 16 August so that contacts of people in England who have tested positive for coronavirus will no longer have to self-isolate if they have received both vaccinations or if they are under 18.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, has called on the government to make a change well before 16 August, allowing those who have a negative Covid PCR test to go back to work.
She says that 60% of hospitality staff are aged between 15 and 34 and so will not be double-jabbed by next month, and so are not affected by the planned rule change.
At the White Rabbit, Whinney is cautious about the change in regime after 19 July. The pub was recently forced to close for 10 days after several members of staff tested positive for Covid. He had to cancel more than 500 bookings and lost more than £50,000 in trade.
White Rabbit staff will continue to wear masks after 19 July and customers will be asked to use a face covering if they go to the bar, or to order via QR codes on tables.
“We have got to create a safe environment for staff and customers regardless of what the government think, and have to make sure they are OK and happy,” Whinney says. “Losing a chef now is a real problem, as you cannot find another one.”