Off The Record – Omicron / Bacta Convention / Government reaction / Starmer cabinet reshuffle / Priti Patel

Kier Starmer 011221©UK Parliament_Jessica Taylor Off the record omnicron
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This week’s OTR asks is the Omicron strain the straw that will break the back of hospitality, why doesn’t the government pursue the people smugglers and not the people being smuggled and why don’t more members attend the Bacta Convention?


That Bacta Convention was worth attending but having some positive news to share might help increase the attendance


When all is said and done last week’s Bacta Convention was worth attending which begs the question why so many chose not to? A trip to London means an early start for many people, which if you are travelling by train can result in buying a ticket that’s the equivalent of a modest mortgage. It also means a day away from the business which isn’t always easy if you are an SME – particularly with the difficulty in getting staff. However, a healthy trade association needs a healthy attendance and there were some healthy debates to listen to and participate in. From my perspective I felt that the Gambling Commission seem to be pre-occupied with the online sector of the industry but I won’t be surprised if they give us a sharp kick in the nuts just to demonstrate that they mean business.

John Whittingdale is always good value and is regarded as being a friend to the industry which is why it’s such a pity that he’s no longer at the Department. If I understood him correctly it looks as if there may not be sufficient parliamentary slots for at least the next year or even the one following which means that the Gambling Review will be delayed further – by which time inflation will have eaten away at our already painfully thin margins. I guess one way of attracting more members would be to have some positive news to share and raise a glass to!


I can’t help but think that the government reaction to the latest variant has been over zealous and destroyed consumer confidence


Having been heavily criticised for its slow response to the Delta variant the government has been super quick and decisive in its immediate response to the challenge presented by the Omicron strain. It’s easy to see why they’ve acted so quickly – for one thing Boris Johnson hasn’t got the fear of scuppering a trade deal to balance as he did with India and the Delta variant – but I can’t help thinking that it’s all been a bit hasty and I’m not on my own. Joe Biden has said the new variant should not be a cause for panic and even the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has gone on the record to predict that the threat presented by Omicron may diminish rather than increase after disclosing that all the cases discovered in Scotland are linked to a single event and that none of the cases had required hospital treatment.

The new Covid rules have been enshrined in law until March 2022 and I can see why so many back bench Tory MPs are revolting with one saying that restricting freedoms was a path ‘towards hell’. Our business and the industry as a whole is based on confidence. If people are going to spend their hard-earned money in my AGC they need to be confident that they will be treated fairly and with respect, confident that they will be made welcome, confident that they will be safe and they must have the confidence to venture beyond their front door. My fear is that they have now had that confidence squeezed out of them and that we will experience a drop in footfall during what is traditionally our ‘busy’ period.


What do you do to an industry that’s on its knees – just get the head of the UK Health Security Agency to give it another good kicking


Dr Jenny Harries is one of those public figures that has been thrust into the limelight due entirely to Covid. She is someone whose face you recognise but whose name you probably have never registered. In her capacity as head of the UK Health Security Agency she was doing the rounds of television and radio studios explaining her take on the new variant. As she fulfilled her media duties, she perhaps unknowingly was killing the hospitality and leisure industry by a thousand cuts or should that be a few wounding syllables. Her take on the as yet unclear situation was that the public should decrease its number of social contacts’ which is shorthand for staying at home and not meeting anyone. Speculation built that Dr Harries was effectively cancelling Christmas, so much so that by noon the Downing Street PR machine was telling journalists to ignore what she had said reminding them that her job is to provide advice to government but that she wasn’t a government minister – all of which was far too little far too late.

The don’t go out/Christmas is cancelled narrative had already gone around the world twice and the damage caused to a fragile and recovering industry had been well and truly done. Talk about kicking an industry when it’s down – and for the record, no I’m not going to cancel my Christmas Party and if I had kids young enough, I would be attending their nativity play!


Starmer has made all the right moves in his cabinet reshuffle but there’s an awfully long and winding road ahead


I have always been slightly critical of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, not because I dislike him but because I thought that he promised so much but had failed to deliver with a litany of lack lustre performances in the House and dull interviews in front of the TV cameras. But perhaps, just perhaps, the wind is beginning to change direction following his quite ruthless shadow cabinet reshuffle which suggests he’s a leader that means business. In effect he moved or replaced five members of his top team bringing in big hitters all from the right of the party. If you subscribe to the view that every choreographed photo-opportunity carries a message, the first photos of Sir Keir walking to his new shadow cabinet meeting had him flanked by his new foreign secretary, David Lammy, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves the former Bank of England Economist. Before Labour starts preparing for power everyone needs to be reminded that to form the next government, they will require a swing larger than the one that swept Tony Blair to power in 1997. Every strong government needs an effective opposition to keep it on its toes – and up until now that has been sadly absent.


Turning the armada of barely water-proof inflatables round before they reach British shores is not the answer – why not pursue the people smugglers who are making an absolute fortune from this vile trade?


Pritti Patel, the Home Secretary with the involuntary smirk has given her endorsement of the so-called push-back strategy by which migrants crossing borders illegally are turned round and sent from where they travelled from – in this case back across the English Channel. She argued that the approach would deter the practice but did not mention the very real threat to life and limb despite coming so soon after the drowning of 27 people in a small inflatable. Of course, there’s a limit to how many people Britain can absorb and we should make the distinction between economic and political migrants. But surely there’s a better way of going about this and a way that’s not so cruel and callous? With the Joint Committee on Human Rights urging Ms Patel to scrap the policy why can’t we turn our attention to breaking-up the smuggling gangs that are charging an estimated £3 – £5k for a ‘seat’ in little more than a children’s inflatable paddling pool. After all, they are the real criminals – aren’t they?


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