I am a food and drink journalist, but last night I felt more like a grief counsellor. After Boris Johnson’s announcement that the public should avoid pubs and restaurants, their owners were bewildered, stricken, livid.
“In our industry that’s the worst thing he could have done,” said one “blindsided” bar owner who had expected a total shutdown – an involuntary closure that would have potentially allowed venues to trigger their business interruption insurance.
Instead, restaurateurs were left hanging. No insurance. No rescue package. No customers. With the added PR disaster that, as one put it: “If you stay open you’re seen as someone who doesn’t care about your community or staff.” Hospitality is not alone. Theatres, cinemas, clubs and music venues are in the same bind. As one friend who works across several of those fields messaged: “Fucking hell!”
Even while Twitter vented its anger and defiance (Belfast’s Mourne Seafood pointed out it had paid £3.8m in taxes, the majority VAT: “Amount of assistance offered to our staff when we close? £0”), venues and businesses were busy formulating survival plans: to sell meal vouchers, turn bars into bottle-shops, run no-contact delivery services. But be in no doubt, none of this will save these businesses in significant numbers.
Last week, I spoke to a national operator with over 15 sites and healthy cash reserves who could ride out a four-week shutdown. Most small independents would go under in a week or two. A few big bland global brands may emerge, battered but functioning. Britain’s independent bars and restaurants are currently doomed.
The contrast between the French government’s response – €300bn of state-guaranteed bank loans with the promise: “No business will fail’’ – and that of our own government could not be more stark. The piecemeal efforts in last week’s budget to protect hospitality and the arts were pathetic. Business rate holidays for smaller operators and statutory sick-pay refunds for businesses that employ less than 250 was a fraction of the action needed. To survive this, such businesses need immediate permission to waive-not-defer (any deferral is simply accruing debt), rent and business loan repayments, utility bills, all tax and NI obligations. Instead, they are left at the mercy of an imploding market. One operator I spoke to, who had contacted HMRC to spread his corporation tax payments, was simply told this was not possible.
A few sensible, far-sighted landlords may hold off on chasing arrears. Note: after three months, landlords are liable for the business rates on empty properties, hence the number of charity shops on our high streets. Other bigger landlords and pubcos are no doubt relishing this opportunity to rid themselves of various “troublesome” tenants. Disaster capitalism will already be planning a bright, shiny post-coronavirus future, looking ahead in a way government finds impossible.
National crises are not defined solely by how governments react in the moment but how they plan for future recovery. The priority seems to be to protect the financial sector, presumably in the hope that by late 2021 Tory ministers will be able to tell the nation that, despite harsh sacrifices blah blah blah … Britain has emerged from coronavirus in a stronger economic position than its European neighbours. A foundational Brexit myth for the ages.
But what will that country feel like? In the midst of a national health crisis, when the government is asking engineering firms to pivot to ventilators, it is a hard sell asking anyone to care about new Nordic cuisine, craft beer, contemporary dance or techno. But it is not either/ or. As in the 2008 financial crisis, we have the money to fund both. Any prioritisation of need is a political as much as an economic decision. Tanking a huge sector (UK hospitality and nightlife employs 3.2m people) and its ancillary industries (breweries, food manufacturers, sound and lighting companies, security firms, talent bookers, associated PR and media) will be a deliberate act.
We will be left with a gaping hole where Britain’s once world-class food and drink, arts and culture activity thrived. We will be left with only corporate chains of bars, restaurants, gig venues and cinemas, in a world less vibrant, less diverse, less innovative. Dissenting voices will be more fringe than ever. The coronavirus crisis has become a desperate life and death situation for everyone. However the next few weeks and months play out, we also face losing the very things that, for many of us, make life worth living.
• Tony Naylor is a Manchester-based food writer