The government has gone as far as it could to reassure the public that it will make good on its promise to remove Covid-restrictions on ‘freedom day’, albeit with caveats and some messy rules still to resolve. The amusements and hospitality industry has universally welcomed Boris Johnson’s signal of intent this week – the broad-based industry being the hardest hit by the restrictions for 16 months and more. “Relief”, an opportunity to “kick start” the recovery, and a ‘major milestone’ in coming to terms with living with Covid is how the trade bodies responded.
It’s not a done deal yet, there’s still dots and crosses for the government to make – and some strong resistance from media elements to overcome – but Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid are determined to see England re-open without restriction on July 19.
Social distancing rules, compulsory wearing of face masks, indoor venue limits, table service only – the bulk of Covid restrictions that have, according to the BBPA’s Emma McLarkin “crippled the viability” of businesses, will all be lifted in less that a fortnight’s time – a final decision confirming this to come from the government on Monday 12 July.
Notwithstanding a pattern of behaviour of the government over the last 18 months to reverse decisions previously announced, there was still a relieved and enthused response from all corners of the hospitality industry – each, obviously, with the cautionary note of “if the government goes ahead with its roadmap”.
According to the Financial Times, it was indeed the expressed concerns of a unified hospitality sector – from amusements all the way through to holiday parks and pubs – that businesses could barely sustain lockdown restrictions any longer that drove the decision home for messrs Johnson and Javid.
And for that, the sectors are seemingly grateful.
Bacta responded: “We welcome Boris Johnson’s announcement which states that social distancing will come to an end on July 19. The necessity to socially distance has cut the capacity in our arcades and prevented people enjoying our products in pubs, therefore this news will be a great relief to Bacta members.”
The BBPA welcomed the news with some degree of optimism: “Over 2,000 pubs remained closed because they couldn’t viably operate with social distancing and table service only. Hopefully from July 19th, these pubs will be able to reopen.
“COVID, the lockdowns and restrictions have nearly destroyed our pubs. As they now get ready to reopen as normal once more, the recovery of our sector is only just beginning.”
Kate Nicholls of UKHospitality, a voice that has certainly resonated around the corridors of government, said: “The Prime Minister’s announcement marks a major milestone in how England will come to live with Covid and will be celebrated by hospitality business owners and their staff across the country. For the vast majority of hospitality businesses, 19th July – if confirmed next week – will be the first time in 16 months that they have been able to realistically look to break even and move towards profitability.”
The Betting and Gaming Council described it as “great news”, and the Showmen’s Guild responded by setting its stall out. President Philip Paris said: “It is the larger, established and historic landmark fairs that we need to concentrate on now to ensure that they take place as the season progresses. There has been some success across the Sections on this so far, which we can build on, as long as we can win the cooperation of local councils.”
The Bingo Association welcomed the news and was brave enough to tackle the proverbial elephant in the room immediately: what to do about the consistency – or lack – of social distancing measures; presumably, although not directly referenced, face masks. Miles Baron noted: “Licensed bingo operators like most of the leisure, hospitality and entertainment sectors welcome the lifting of social distancing restrictions, however it is likely that some operators will voluntarily keep some measures in place for some time as public confidence still presents a formidable challenge to restoring industry volumes back to pre Covid levels.”
This, it’s fair to say, will be vigorously debated between now and Monday when the government makes its final decision.
By that time, Balppa members would have responded to an instant survey issued by the association on their position with regard to the relaxation of Covid rules. Paul Kelly said: “It’s definitely a welcome move and following that we put out a snap survey to members to see how they think they will be able to operate from the 19th based on the announcement.”
Willingly will be the overriding response, but there will be questions coming from businesses which have been so financially impaired by Covid restrictions during the past 16 months. The BBPA reinforced its campaign for more financial assistance, arguing that the support lifeline for businesses must remain in place.
It stated: “To fully recover and lead the economic bounce back from lockdown as the UK builds back better, the British Beer & Pub Association is urging the Government to invest in the sector by reforming VAT, beer duty and business rates to reduce the unfair tax burden pubs and breweries face.” But the Johnson/Javid message is only for England – Scotland and Wales have yet to commit to the English code – a posturing which undoubtedly presents an uneven return both within national borders and personal choices.
Referencing the voluntary element of the relaxation, Miles Baron of the Bingo Association, once again: “This could lead to a varied and inconsistent approach not just across bingo but the wider gambling sector which may prove confusing for customer, operator and regulatory bodies. It is to be hoped that where possible the bingo industry will take a collective approach.
“I think we can also expect more detail on Monday, I don’t think we have the full picture yet and this may change things further.”
That note of caution will echo around the industry, especially given the current momentum on the wearing of face masks on transport systems, and the chaotic fallout expected from self-isolation instructions from test and trace which, according to the government will continue through to August 16.
And that will mean a hefty portion of chaos chucked on to the relaxation plate. With so many hospitality firms struggling with staff issues and closure as a result of the zealous test and trace app, there remain some major dishes on the freedom day menu that need to be put back into the oven before they’re ready.