The High Street Group reaction to latest COVID-19 announcement

The blunt instruments introduced by the government to curb further increases in COVID-19 cases have the potential to do more harm than good, particularly to the hospitality industry.

The measures announced by the Prime Minister, which followed quickly on the heels of those introduced by our own local authorities in the North East at the end of last week, could have a devastating effect on our sector and potentially cost thousands of jobs.

To be clear, I’m not putting our businesses before the health and safety of our staff, customers and everyone else in the country.

I believe there should be a better, more long-term strategy to stabilising and managing coronavirus outbreaks during the pandemic.  Currently, everything is reactive and just short-term measures, and this is a perfect example.

My business has 20 hospitality venues including restaurants, bars and hotels, across the North East and we heard of the potential of these new measures with two days’ notice.  The same is true for all other venues in England outside our region who heard this news on Tuesday and have just till today to prepare.

In our case, all our staff, management team and everyone connected to the business has been working really long hours with sleepless nights to work out how we keep our businesses moving forward and ride out this storm.   I expect that has been replicated nationwide across the hospitality sector.

This sort of action, without due consideration and with no discussion with operators and venue owners simply beggar’s belief.

I am no scientist, but what I do know is that we have been operating table service and social distancing across all our restaurants and bars since we reopened and there have been no issues whatsoever.

We’ve managed, even with these measures, to create a welcoming atmosphere for friends and family to socialise together safely since we reopened the doors of our venues in July.  That won’t stop with the introduction of shorter opening hours, but it will make the public think twice about coming out to enjoy themselves.

Anyone who follows Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s statement from last week to the letter and does not mix with those outside their household will slash the number of people booking tables in bars and restaurants.

There is a distinct lack of clarity about whether you can socialise with friends or just family members from your household and support bubble at a table service-only venue.

The hospitality sector is vital to the North East economy employing thousands of people across hundreds of venues.  Some may find it difficult to continue under these restrictions.

However, it could have all been very different, and still could be, with a common sense, long-term strategy.

This should include a programme of inspections of pubs and restaurants to make sure they are applying all the measures they can to keep their customers and staff safe.

We are all so used to seeing the Food Hygiene star rating sticker in the window of every food-serving business we use.  It is a clear indication of the cleanliness of a venue and gives customers the confidence and information they need.

Surely the same method should be applied to pubs and restaurants to make sure they are COVID-safe and effectively applying all the measures?

Since we reopened our bars and restaurants in July, we have yet to have a visit from anybody inspecting whether we are doing things in the correct manner.

If the government and local authorities are thinking of blanket measures this should be one of them.  It is happening sporadically in different areas of the country, including on our doorstep in the Tees Valley.  Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston has introduced a team of officers checking on premises to ensure social distancing and other measures are in place.

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Middlesbrough and the rest of the Tees Valley had avoided being part of the measures introduced for the rest of the North East.  A few weeks ago, cases were rising, but the area has applied all the measures at its disposal, such as inspections and social media campaigns. to help stabilise the number of cases.  We have two venues in Yarm, and they have been running perfectly well and safely with the measures in place.

Bringing in random inspections for premises and giving them something to display to demonstrate that they are complying with the measures will help local authorities better police their areas and make more informed decisions before forcing restrictions on their residents and businesses.

Local authorities will say they don’t have the resources to monitor and inspect bars and restaurants, but over the next three months, I would deploy other council workers like traffic wardens and parking attendants to support the scheme.

Those venues that fail should be shut down and those of us that are working incredibly hard to implement all the measures the government has asked us to do and effectively applying them, can stay open.

A simple approach like this would have had a bigger effect earlier in the pandemic and helped control further outbreaks.  For the here and now, it would give the public confidence, allow venues to return to their normal operating hours and help protect valuable jobs across our region.