Guest post by Scottish Restaurateur Derek Mallon owner of the Van Winkle & Mharsanta outlets.
Seldom has the hospitality industry been so much the focus of our government or indeed our media. However, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has pushed our industry into the limelight as many jobs and businesses are threatened by the necessity of the government to adopt a range of restrictions in their efforts to save lives.
The fluid situation in which we all find ourselves in is undoubtedly a difficult place and we, as operators in the hospitality sector, need to demonstrate a level of responsibility to our teams, our guests, and our government. Following the initial reopening of the sector in July, we saw most venues going to great lengths to follow all the guidance and this was widely appreciated by the general-public. However, we also saw many venues blatantly ignoring the guidelines in a premature attempt to return to full normality, a situation I personally observed on several occasions. There was a need for local authority and police enforcement at this stage but this failed to materialise. It is important to state that hospitality has not been the only, or indeed primary, catalyst that has led to increasing infections, hospitalisations or deaths. However, we do need to recognise the difficulty governments around the world are having as they attempt to deal with the ongoing situation. Responsible operators are committed to assisting the government in its attempts rather than constantly looking for ways to circumvent the restrictions. Indulging in the media’s politically motivated hysteria on subjects like ‘what is a café?’ does little to help and only leads to further confusion.
UK Gov drive to get back to normal just won’t work.
I have been asked for my opinion on many occasions, with an expectation that I would be demanding to open our bars and restaurant ASAP. Getting back to normality is absolutely where we want to get to in terms of operating our venues, however, we do need to ensure the conditions are right to do so. As with so many hospitality venues, we rely on the activities of wider society to deliver guests to our doors. Many discussions are taking place around Glasgow and cities across the world about how to get businesses opened and trading successfully. These are perfectly valid conversations assuming restrictions are not going to make any reopening unviable. Without the return of office staff, business conferences, hotel guests, concert goers, international & domestic tourists, sporting events and shoppers, I see little prospect of being able to trade successfully. We also have restrictions on capacity, group sizes and families mixing. I recognise the impact of the restrictions is variable, depending on location, however many hospitality businesses within city centres are particularly affected by the lack of wider economic activity. Opening a bar or restaurant on 20%-50% of normal sales, without any definitive end in sight, would surely see most businesses fail quickly.
Listening to the science.
So, where should our focus lie as we head towards what looks like a somewhat bleak winter and festive period that promises to be a non-event for restaurants and bars? Should we continue a war of words with government and medical experts from across the world on whether hospitality venues provide an opportunity for the virus to spread? Personally, I think we need to accept the overwhelming opinion of expert epidemiologists across the world and look closer at what is behind much of the frustration felt in our sector. They will have made mistakes, but surely, they are the most qualified to make informed judgements on how to minimise further fatalities.
The problem most businesses face is a lack of financial support. The support offered back in March was widely appreciated as the world sought to understand what the pandemic would mean. As we transitioned through the summer months, the attitude coming from the UK government changed from saving lives and the NHS to that of saving money. We now face the prospect of a UK government which is close to giving up on protecting jobs and livelihoods with a combination of confused job retention schemes and insufficient business support.
Scottish Government held back by lack of access to borrowing or new money creation.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s business support grant scheme but again it does not go far enough, given its inability to access additional funds. We now find ourselves in a position where the UK government is failing to provide sufficient funds to save thousands of businesses and jobs across Scotland, whilst simultaneously preventing the Scottish government from raising its own funds. Kristalina Georgieva, Head of the IMF, warned the UK government this month that ‘now is not yet the time to balance the books’ after the chancellor faced criticism for providing inadequate financial support to the economy.
Hospitality is a key sector for the Scottish economy, and we must do everything we can to protect it over the coming months whilst restrictions remain. The UK government must either provide the necessary support or step aside and let the Scottish Government do the job that it wants to do in protecting businesses and jobs across the Scottish hospitality sector.
Van Winkle & Mharsanta
Much appreciated insight