Editor’s comment: June 2020
PUBLISHED: 15:04 19 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:11 19 May 2020
The lockdown might be lifting but how many of our pubs and restaurants will survive?
I am in the midst of a lockdown dream. I am sitting at a linen-clad table with a full armoury of cutlery. A man approaches and places before me a piece of turbot, perfectly cooked, in a sauce vierge with clams. Jersey Royals and Wye Valley asparagus lurk to the side. The food has been prepared and cooked by a trained chef. When I have eaten it, the man will come and take away my empty plate and clear up the detritus. Someone else will wash it up while I peruse the pudding wine selection. A Chateau d’Yquem, perhaps. And then I wake up…
Later that day, sitting before a tinned pie with processed peas and frozen chips, I consider the immense damage that the coronavirus pandemic has caused to our hospitality industry. One thing you could always be certain of in the Cotswolds is that you were never more than a mile away from somewhere serving a home-made burger with cheese, bacon and thrice-fried chips. But once the lockdown is lifted, how many of our pubs and restaurants will survive, even with the government subsidies handed out by that nice Mr Rishi? (And not all pubs qualify for that.)
Take social distancing, for instance. Let’s assume that parties of two or four are allowed to sit at the same table, but other diners are required to sit two metres away from them, what will that do to the capacity of an average restaurant? Profit margins are already tiny (or non-existent) based on 75% occupancy. What if that capacity is reduced to 30% when tables are “safely” spaced? It simply won’t be worth establishments operating. They’ll lose money as soon as they open the door.
And how could such restrictions work in a pub? Capacity issues aside, how do you cope with what was the crush at the bar, and the beer pumps and server that are less than a metre away from customers? It just doesn’t add up.
And then there’s the more ephemeral issues like the lack of atmosphere. If you’ve been in a supermarket queue lately you’ll be familiar with the silent shuffling of the condemned. Part of the fun of a night out is the buzz created by other diners and drinkers. Well, there ain’t no buzz in social distancing.
The knock-on impact on other hospitality-related businesses shouldn’t be discounted either, particularly in rural areas like this. The food and drink suppliers, the hoteliers, the shopkeepers, the service station staff, the B&B owners, the taxi drivers, the coach, bus and train services – all are being hit by the economic ripples of reduced tourism.
And will people want to venture out in the first place? The climate of fear created by coronavirus won’t be easily dissipated. I know that you’d have a hell of a job persuading me to set foot on public transport any time soon. A table in a restaurant or pub? Maybe, but not everyone is prepared to sacrifice their perceived safety for a slap-up meal.
Hospitality is the third biggest economic sector in the UK. It employs 3.2 million people directly, and another 2.8 million indirectly. It provides 9% of all the UK’s jobs, rising to 11% in the regions – and many more in tourism hotspots like the Cotswolds. If lockdown restrictions are to last for many more months, the Chancellor must provide some kind of financial support that goes way beyond the current furlough payments.
This is the month we should be celebrating the very best of regional hospitality and produce at the renowned Cotswold Life Food & Drink Awards (now postponed, somewhat optimistically, until October). I only hope that by the time that event comes around, there will still be plenty to celebrate, not just mourn.
Whenever I write about cyclists, the two-wheeled terrorists go mad and start sending me hate mail – even if they haven’t read the piece they’re complaining about. Now I have no problem with couples or family groups having a tootle around the village, but I do get a bit fed up with hordes of lycra louts sweating and panting their way past my currently plague-free front door just because our lane is part of a popular cycle route. Now I know, and they know, that they’re flouting the isolation rules, but apparently they don’t apply to anyone on a thousand-pound bike who looks like a condom full of walnuts (thank you, the late, great Clive James). And don’t get me started on the six motorcyclists from Birmingham who were exercising their right to exercise by roaring up and down the A46 in full leathers. The only thing they were exercising was their oily egos.
Mike Lowe, email@example.com
Follow Mike on Twitter: @cotslifeeditor