Politicians tend to like their election campaigning to be as stage managed as possible: the reception Keir Starmer received from publican Rod Humphris earlier this week, for daring to enter his pub in Bath, following his backing of lockdown restrictions, was a perfect reminder of why.
Putting the objective rudeness of the landlord and entertainment factor of the encounter aside, this incident was invaluable in raising a really serious point – the pub and hospitality industry has been totally neglected by politicians in the past year. His reasons to be angry were entirely legitimate.
It is worth reflecting on just how tough this period has been for pubs and hospitality. Banned from operating at all for at least half of the last year, even when open, venues have been unable to operate at full capacity due to a seemingly limitless panoply of checks and diktats: from social distancing, to outdoor only dining, the 10PM rule, NHS check in, and most farcically the ‘substantial meal’ rule – the list goes on.
These burdens would all have been one thing for pubs to have tolerated if accompanied by full government compensation. However, the reality of government support has not remotely adhered to this. For example, whilst the furlough has helped prop up jobs, it has done very little to keep businesses solvent. Fixed costs such as rent and debt repayments have all continued to be owed, yet with little ability of pubs to raise the revenue to pay. Unsurprisingly then, at least 10,000 licensed premises shut down permanently last year – a 175 per cent rise in net closures compared to 2019.
Even for those lucky venues that have survived so far, many have only done so through taking on substantial new debts, debts that look set to only hang around their necks like a millstone for years to come.
It is in this context then, that Mr Humphris was angry with Keir Starmer – a man who has voted for almost every one of the restrictions noted above, and who in many cases has pushed for the Government to go further and earlier. So, it is understandable why he found it a bit much to allow a politician who had actively worked against his interests to use his business as a campaigning prop.
Unfortunately, for many hospitality venues, it’s still not clear this hell is over. For example, whilst the Government has heralded the loosening of restrictions this month to allow outdoor hospitality as a great boon, research from UKHospitality has found that two-thirds of pubs are indoor only – an unlucky fact that will almost certainly lead to the end of the chunk of those venues that cannot survive another five weeks shut.
Similarly, any continued social distancing measures after the indoor re-opening on 17 May, combined with new bureaucracy such as checks for vaccine passports, will all continue to have a potentially devastating financial impact – particularly for those businesses newly burdened with debt
Perhaps the biggest threat overall to hospitality is irresponsible and hyperbolic warnings by certain influential modellers, such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, about how the UK looks set to see – implausibly due to the vaccine – an even worse wave in the late summer than was seen during the peak last year. With such an ominous future envisioned, the chances of many businesses simply giving up and not being willing to take on the risk of further financial liability is very real. Despite the rudeness, Keir Starmer should have listened to Rod.