It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
The government is expected to announce measures that will allow pubs, restaurants, cinemas, galleries and theatres to re-open under relaxed but still constraining rules on the 4th of July.
It’s not quite social Independence Day, but the expected announcement that social distancing measures that require two metres distance in most settings will be relaxed to one metre has been welcomed by the hospitality industry as “an important staging post”.
It’s “a helpful moment for the national psyche”, according to Kate Nicholls, head of the trade group UK Hospitality.
But the champagne is still on ice. And could yet be put back in the economic refrigerator.
“We are only able to move forward this week because the vast majority of people have taken steps to control the virus,” a number 10 spokesman told the BBC.
“But the more we open up, the more important it is that everyone follows the social distancing guidelines. We will not hesitate to reverse these steps if it is necessary to stop the virus running out of control.”
Hard to police
Many establishments are straining at the leash to re-open. Peter Borg-Neal, who runs 28 pubs has already provocatively said he intends to re-open on 4 July whether or not the government gives him the green light.
Others are less gung ho. Several pubs and restaurants have told me they do not see the point of re-opening even under one metre distancing rules as it will be impossible to police and the business would still lose money.
That’s the supply side of the equation – the other side is demand. Most of us want to go out for a drink or a meal or a film but how many would actually step through the door?
Recent polling by Ipsos Mori found that six out of 10 people would feel uncomfortable returning to a pub or restaurant.
Some operators feel that the government’s re-opening guidelines – that are expected to accompany tomorrow’s announcement – may be counter-productive.
3rdlargest UK employer in 2018
3.2 millionworkers in the sector
99%of hospitality businesses are SMEs
£130bnannual turnover in 2018
67%expect it will be “months” before going to a restaurant
Source: UK Hospitality, EY
“Single use menus, banning condiments, insisting on mask wearing – you are making people afraid of using a pepper pot. We have to persuade people there is nothing to fear,” said Jonathan Downey, head of street food venue operator London Union and head of lobbying group Hospitality Union.
There are other major concerns.
Once people have had a few drinks, who will police the social distancing measures that are expected in the guidelines, even at one metre.
“To think that a young bar tender could do that is nuts” said one pub owner.
Good and bad
And what about the legal position? Could a hospitality venue owner be sued if someone contracted the virus and blamed the management for a potentially life-threatening condition?
On this point there is good and bad news for the industry, according to Kate Nicholls, head of Hospitality UK.
The bad news for venues is that no insurer will touch that risk with a barge pole.
The good news is that it will be almost impossible to establish whether the virus was in fact contracted on the premises.
Going to the pub will be entirely at the pub-goers risk. But not opening hospitality venues will represent a grave risk to the economy and up to 3 million jobs.
Everyone wants the semblance of normality that a further easing of social lockdown measures will bring.
But as the government has made clear, if things don’t go to plan and the virus sees another surge it may be too soon to pull up all those two metre distancing tapes on the floor and call time on this health, social and economic menace.