To say that the coronavirus has been a shock to the system is an understatement. What was once a health crisis spread quickly to become an economic crisis—indeed, the biggest recession on record. The multimillion-employing hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit, adding to existing, pre-covid woes over Brexit supply chains and the loss of its international workforce. Hospitality drives the health of our high streets and the viability of our suburbs and towns. A lot of these business are family run—I know: my late dad was an Indian restaurant person himself. All of these things are now facing existential threat. At the other end of the scale, the collapse of big chains such as Carluccio’s, Pizza Express and even Jamie Oliver outlets would ordinarily be big news, but these are not ordinary times, and with the worst death toll in Europe, we hear barely a whisper about them.
I never thought I would live to see the day when a Conservative Government would forcibly shut down businesses, but here we are again. A dedicated Government Minister for hospitality would give food, beverage and leisure accommodation a proper say, rather than them always being an afterthought, suffering the consequences of the latest failed experiment—the tiering system, the 10 pm curfew or whatever it is. At a time of distancing and isolation, a sector based on togetherness and sociability cannot exist on takeaway only. This sector spent a fortune on remodelling, even though social distancing slashes the number of covers available: people instituted one-way systems, enhanced cleaning, and screens to create a covid-secure environment, all seemingly now for nothing. These people are famed for hard work and resilience, but they cannot run on empty, and no one clapped when they provided meals for NHS staff or for children, outside of the Government’s initial, cruel insistence that they would not run the free school meals scheme in the holidays.
Coronageddon should not relegate hospitality to being the easiest lever to pull: first into lockdown, last out, in this zig-zag, stop-start way. These businesses need cash flow, and they need to plan for things like fresh produce orders and staffing rotas. As the MP who first spoke of a “curry crisis”, I implore the Minister: the sector is fighting for survival, and bold action is needed. Now is the time for a dedicated Minister, plus additional financial support, extending furlough and rent, rates and VAT relief, because we will all need restaurants, hotels and pubs. Some 56 pubs a week are closing at the moment; that is a matter of shame. We will all need them to get us out of the other side and build consumer confidence.