Wilf Stevenson on the dire impact on jobs and communities of the government’s approach to Covid and the hospitality sector
‘Community’ can often centre on the hospitality sector, whether the pub where locals come together, a bar where a group of people feel most accepted, or a neighbourhood or village restaurant. Exactly the sort of businesses that are most affected by the government’s latest measures to try to halt the spread of Covid-19. With a growing number of cases, the tightening of restrictions, and the ending of the furlough scheme, the sector is facing tough times. Indeed, UKHospitality is predicting an extra 560,000 redundancies by the end of the year.
The new measures introduce the ‘rule of six’ for hospitality venues, while businesses must “take all reasonable steps” to stop people singing and dancing, and limit music noise levels. Along with targeting specific behaviours, there is also a broad year-long timeframe and wide enforcement powers. On public health matters, Labour continues to be broadly supportive of the government’s approach to Covid. But the restrictions being placed on the hospitality sector must come with additional financial support; as well as incentives to retain affected jobs.
While any government would find it challenging during a pandemic to find the right balance between necessary public health measures and much needed economic support, the current one – from Boris Johnson down – has acted with serial incompetence while trying to do so. People were told to go back into the workplace while track and trace wasn’t functioning properly, and to eat out while the NHS App wasn’t ready. Businesses meanwhile were given no indication of what would replace furlough.
Many pub landlords, and bar and restaurant owners believe redundancies and closures are but a few weeks away. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak told this week’s Conservative Party Conference “I can’t protect every job and every business”, the sector would have seen that as a direct address. Accepting mass unemployment, as ministers are doing, is not just the wrong choice for hospitality business and workers but for our whole economy and society.
The government’s incompetence extends to the Job Support Scheme. Set up supposedly to stop employees being laid off by covering a percentage of their wages, serious questions have arisen about its effectiveness. Indeed, the scheme’s design makes it more cost-effective for some struggling businesses to lay off half their staff rather than pay £700 a month for each job they wish to save. Some employers may find themselves having to ‘flip a coin’ with livelihoods and sack one staff member for every two on their books.
Labour has called for a Job Recovery Scheme, to provide businesses with proper incentives to keep staff on; as well as a review into the 10pm curfew. We have also called for the business grants underspend to be brought together into a ‘Hospitality and High Streets Fightback Fund’, so that local authorities can target financial support at those in distress.
The hospitality sector is approaching a bleak run up to Christmas, and the government needs to recognise this urgently and change course. A failure to do so, will not only see the loss of many businesses and thousands of jobs but a hollowing out of communities and all the misery that this will bring.
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow BEIS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @WilfStevenson
Published 8th October 2020