We’re a week away from knowing when we can eat out again. Boris is due to make his big ‘roadmap’ announcement this time next week, which means most of it will be leaked in the weekend papers and a week today we’ll be writing a ‘what to expect in tonight’s speech article’. It’s a big moment, spurred on by plummeting coronavirus cases, an R number beating the retreat and soaring levels of immunisation thanks to the vaccination programme. All of which point to hospitality being green-lit sooner rather than later. But what then?
Deliveroo led the charge this weekend, along with 300 restaurant groups, in an open letter to the Prime Minister demanding that when restaurants reopen the Eat Out To Help Out (EOTHO) scheme, which reduced the cost of meals by 50% during August, be reinstated.
The policy was a huge commercial success, helping newly reopened restaurants to get back on their feet while giving punters an extra incentive to return to hospitality after the first peak of the virus.
Withdrawal of support too early or too suddenly risks viable businesses failing just as the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming clearer...
In the letter, Deliveroo argues that “Even when they are able to reopen to customers, restrictions around mixing of households and social distancing measures mean that a return to trading at full capacity will remain dependent on the successful vaccine rollout” and that they needed government intervention to protect jobs, saying “The withdrawal of support too early or too suddenly risks viable businesses failing just as the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming clearer”.
As well as arguing for EOTHO, the group pushed the government to extend the 5% VAT reduction until the end of the year, continue furlough for as long as it’s needed, help businesses in rental arrears, extend the business rates relief for retail and restaurants for a further financial year.
Finally they pushed for priority rapid testing and vaccination for hospitality workers, who are most likely to be at the back of the queue for vaccines but also more likely to come into contact with the virus.
Of course this final point will be the one that might persuade the government to hold back on EOTHO. Another lockdown would be disastrous, especially when we are so close to being able to finally say farewell to COVID-19 and flooding hospitality, particularly before outdoor dining is particularly attractive or viable, could be a fatal misstep.
Signalling its return, but not until a later date, may still lead to the industry introducing a similar effort themselves, as we saw after the end of EOTHO in August, when many restaurants continued to run their own versions of the scheme. But without government cash this will be costly and unsustainable.
But if Boris is too cautious to reintroduce EOTHO then it only piles on more pressure to address the other items in the Deliveroo letter. The brunt of the economic pain of lockdown has fallen on the shoulders of the hospitality sector. Central government now needs to step up and repay this sacrifice.