Opinion: Could Sweden's response to covid-19 have saved British hospitality?

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

22 May 2020

As Sweden's relaxed approach to the coronavirus pandemic attracts increasing attention, news editor Jacopo Mazzeo wonders whether the Swedish system would have benefited the UK's hospitality industry

As I begin cooking my umpteenth lockdown dinner, I dream up of sitting comfortably in a restaurant, chatting to the waiter then scanning the venue’s wine list for much too long before eventually drinking what the sommelier suggests. It just feels so remote.

Yet, while I'm immersed in my nostalgic thoughts, Sweden’s on-trade premises are still operating, as they’ve been since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, when most of Europe went into lockdown, the Swedish government opted for a more relaxed, keep-calm-and-carry-on approach, deeming the strict measures of Spain, Italy and even the UK as being unnecessary and ‘draconian’. Swedes have been and are free to move, primary schools and nurseries are still open, as are restaurants, although they operate in accordance with the government’s covid-19 health and safety measures.

‘The daily routine has not changed much,’ manager and sommelier Petter Nyberg tells me, about his work at Sweden’s GC Restaurant. ‘I used to work a lot on the development of the restaurants, now it’s more time on the floor.’

GC's restaurant manager and sommelier Petter Nyberg
GC's restaurant manager and sommelier Petter Nyberg

The attempt to salvage the economy however, is coming at a terrible cost. A human cost. Sweden’s death toll sits at a horrifying 3,871 [source Sweden’s Public Health Authority/Folkhälsomyndigheten]. To put things into perspective, the country’s death-per-million-people ratio – according to the Financial Times’ calculations, based on data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Covid Tracking Project, is reported as now being 6.4, in contrast with the UK’s 6.2, Italy’s 5.5, and Spain’s 4.0.

With hotels, restaurants and bars allowed to operate, has the human sacrifice benefited the Swedish hospitality industry?

Unexpected figures

Sweden’s Central Bureau of Statistics (SCB – Statistiska centralbyrån) reported that the country’s economy showed ‘a notable decline in areas like hotels and restaurants’, with March sales down 37% and 23% respectively, compared to the same period in 2019. With such grim figures in March, numbers for April and May are expected to look even gloomier.

Visita, an industry and employer organisation for the Swedish hospitality industry, was able to offer a more up-to-date snapshot on the conditions of Sweden’s hospitality.

‘In short, the industry is in deep crisis,’ says Visita chief economist, Thomas Jakobsson. ‘Although restaurants in Sweden are allowed to stay open, the Public Health Authority’s (Folkhälsomyndigheten) recommendation to uphold social distancing has had a major impact on people’s behaviour. Restaurant sales have fallen by 65% year-on-year [calculated weekly, as of the w/c 11 May].’

Among the reasons to justify such a sharp decline, Jakobsson mentions the ban on public gatherings larger than 50 people, as well as missing foreign and local tourism. 

The industry is in deep crisis... Restaurant sales have fallen by 65% year-on-year

Thomas Jakobsson, Visita chief economist

‘It’s been really tough, since most traveling has stopped,’ confirms GC’s Nyberg. ‘Instead of only serving à la carte dinner, we do things like takeaway, lunches, and ready-to-cook shopping bags to be able to balance some of the losses.’

Indeed, although there had been no legal ban until 13 May, the lack of travelers due to fears of infection mean that the hotel occupancy rate in Stockholm is currently around 7% (a figure that could potentially be near zero, as last week in response to the worrying death toll, the Swedish government proposed to introduce a ban on international travel and on car rides longer than two hours until 15 July). Jakobsson laments that, ‘the only numbers going up in [the hospitality] sector are bankruptcies’.

In March, bankruptcies in the industry increased by 167% year-on-year, with a majority of them being restaurants. ‘To this day, more than 30,000 people have lost their jobs or been given notice. This accounts for one in five jobs in the Swedish hospitality industry.’

The Swedish government has introduced some economic relief measures for businesses, such as full coverage for employees on sick leave. According to Visita however, these are insufficient to help the hospitality sector survive the crisis. 

A useful insight

Could Sweden’s approach have helped the British hospitality industry get through the crisis? I think most likely, it would have not.

Amid the pandemic, the undeniable human sacrifice, and a hospitality sector experiencing its worst crisis to date, Sweden’s current scenario offers one element we can certainly cash in on: a potential window into our immediate post-lockdown future

Nevertheless, amid the pandemic, the undeniable human sacrifice, and a hospitality sector experiencing its worst crisis to date, Sweden’s current scenario offers one element we can certainly cash in on: a potential window into our immediate post-lockdown future.

With fewer people traveling, and restaurants, bars and pubs asked to work at reduced capacity, on-trade venues will have to keep diversifying their offer and cut costs. Provide takeaways, deliveries, new services, or partly re-purpose as shops.

‘Necessity is the mother of invention, and struggling hospitality business owners are certainly no exception,’ says Visita’s Jakobsson. ‘I have seen restaurants where guests are separated by enormous teddy bears, seated in glass cubicles or being offered a cook to bring and prepare the food in their homes.’

Resilience and ingenuity, not even the pandemic will take that away from our industry.

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