Mixed feelings: Industry reacts to new ‘rule of six’

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

11 September 2020

The prime minister’s latest safety measures have garnered a variety of responses from trade representatives and operators. Some have shown acceptance and even enthusiastic support, but others have raised concerns about the impact the new rules will have on consumer confidence

On Wednesday, prime minister Boris Johnson announced heightened Covid-19 safety measures affecting the hospitality industry, limiting social gatherings to groups of six and making the collection of test-and-trace data mandatory for businesses. These rules will be enforced beginning Monday 14 September.

The new ‘rule of six’ means that meetings of multiple households will be restricted to six people or less. Restaurants, bars and pubs must not accept groups of more than six from different households, but can still host multiple groups at once in keeping with Covid guidelines.

The new test-and-trace measures dictate that venues must take customers’ details for the NHS test-and-trace programme and retain this information for 21 days. Previously, the collection of test-and-trace data was encouraged but not compulsory.

Opposing views

These changes have prompted extremely mixed reactions from operators.

Some business owners, such as David Abrahamovitch, founder of coffee and cocktail concept Grind, view the new measures as an impediment to recovery. Abrahamovitch called the announcement ‘a kick in the teeth’ that could lead to ‘a tragic scene across the UK’.

‘This will undermine consumer confidence and set the entire sector back even further,’ he said. ‘It’s incredibly difficult to understand this move in the context of the current data, especially in London where death and hospitalisation rates are low. The furlough scheme is coming to an end and trading through the important Christmas period is starting to feel less and less likely. It’s hard to foresee a situation that doesn’t result in a bloodbath and closures in the industry later this year and continuing into early 2021.’

Other businesses have embraced the news, and even updated their offerings to show support for the measures. For instance, Gaucho and M Restaurants – both owned by Rare Restaurants – have introduced a new campaign called ‘The Safe Six’, which sees the restaurant chains accepting bookings at 6pm with dishes priced at £6. ‘Although it seems the new measures are restrictive, in many ways they are liberating and will allow indoor dining beyond your family or bubble – so we wanted to create a menu that celebrates visiting restaurants once more,’ said Rare Restaurants chief executive Martin Williams.

London Cocktail Week (LCW) have also championed the announcement by launching a new promotion, offering a ‘six wristbands for the price of five’ ticket option for its festival in October.

‘Last night the prime minister announced the new laws around socialising being limited to a maximum of six people,’ the LCW team wrote in a newsletter published today. ‘This was very good news for us at London Cocktail Week HQ. We are delighted that measures are being put in place to get the infection rate down – so helping to ensure our beloved bars are not put into lockdown again!’

A call to action

Meanwhile, trade body representatives have called for further clarification and support from the government in light of the new measures.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls noted that more information about ‘the responsibility of individuals’ is needed: ‘The prime minister’s statement represents a further shift towards hospitality businesses to act to protect public health. This is a challenge that the sector has already grasped and will redouble efforts to achieve, in the interest of customers and staff, and to minimise the risk of further lockdowns.

‘This will, of course, be more easily achieved with the cooperation of customers... Any fines charged against hospitality venues for breaching Covid-secure requirements must be proportionate and pertain to factors wholly under the control of the venue.’

James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, expressed concerns for small breweries, advocating that new restrictions must be paired with a ‘full package of support’. ‘While it is imperative that we tackle the spread of Covid-19, the hospitality industry is still in a fragile state having taken the first few steps to start to rebuild over the summer, with small independent breweries who rely on pub beer sales some of the hardest hit.

‘Even with pubs, bars and restaurants having been allowed to reopen, like-for-like July sales for small breweries have been down 50% and every week over the summer we have seen at least two small breweries closing for good… If further restrictions are introduced, it is imperative that the government provides the full support these small independent businesses need... including the business rate holiday and an extension of furlough.

‘The government should also scrap its plans to raise the amount of beer duty small breweries will have to pay under its proposed changes to Small Brewers Relief, which is threatening businesses and creating additional uncertainty at a very challenging time.’

British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Emma McClarkin also weighed in with a call to action for the government. ‘It is important to understand the changes to social gatherings announced today will have an immediate cooling effect on public confidence to go out and visit our pubs, and will have a direct impact on trade that will be felt hard across an industry that is already struggling to get back on its feet,’ she commented.

‘At such a delicate point in our recovery after a steady start this summer, as we head into autumn and winter where we expect trade to already slow down, this is very concerning... Pubs and breweries will need much more support from the government if they are to survive. An extension on business rates relief, continuation of the VAT cut to food and soft drinks, a sector specific furlough extension and a significant beer duty cut are needed now.

‘These measures, along with the welcomed compensation for businesses closed as a result of local lockdowns, will help pubs survive, protect jobs and ensure they can continue to serve our communities.’

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