UK restaurateurs are up in arms this week about lunch. More specifically, business lunches.
After banging pots in a demonstration outside Parliament to demand more financial support, restaurant owners spotted what the food critic William Sitwell called a “glorious loophole” in the new, stricter regulations aimed at curbing the rising second wave of coronavirus infections.
Under guidance for UK regions placed under “high alert”, gatherings of people from different households are banned indoors and limited outside to six people only. But the rules, which apply to London and Birmingham among other places, say people can meet others if it is “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.
Restaurateurs, many of them close to closure after 20 weeks of lockdown in the spring and limits to trade after that, pounced on the idea that they can still make some money from the previously lucrative trade of City lunches.
In an email to regulars, Jeremy King, co-founder of the Corbin & King group of restaurants, which includes such white-collar favourites as the Delaunay and the Wolseley, said that the current regulations were “bewildering” and, in capital letters, that “BUSINESS MEETINGS ARE ACCEPTABLE”. The owners of London’s oldest Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy, put it in bold type: “Where the primary purpose of the occasion is business, the single household rule does not apply.”
The government, wary of promoting the idea that a three-martini lunch was a safe option during a pandemic, played down the technicality. A Downing Street spokesman said on Tuesday that the lunching loophole was really aimed at freelancers and the self-employed who would struggle to find other places to conduct business. Yet culture minister Oliver Dowden, asked about the business lunch debate on Thursday, told ITV that the government’s choice to prioritise “jobs and livelihoods” meant people should “go to work or as normally as we can in this crisis”.
That raises the questions of what constitutes working “as normally as we can” and whether a long lunch oiling the wheels of a professional relationship lost in the mists of Zoom fatigue is “reasonably necessary”. Food critics might claim it is “reasonably necessary” for them to dine with a companion. An enterprising group of friends might set up as a limited company, issue shares and call an annual general meeting at their local Italian joint.
Colin Leckey, a partner at the law firm Lewis Silkin, whose blog on the subject did the rounds of the hospitality industry this week, says that the question is: “what business are you transacting over lunch that you couldn’t do by other means?” “In the first three months of the pandemic you would have transacted the relevant business over a Zoom call so what means that today you need to do it over lunch?”
Fines for those found to be breaking the one-household indoor-socialising rule are steep, starting at £100 for the first offence and doubling with each offence up to a total of £6,400. The counter argument is that six months of living virtually has worn out the repartee of even the best business relationships. Or as one City broker put it, “Zoom meetings do your head in after five in a row.”
The wider point is that we all need to refresh our so-called “social capital”: the communal bonds formed over meals that cannot be replicated by stilted interactions on oddly propped up laptops.
Whether this would stand up in court as “reasonably necessary” is something that lawyers could argue about “at great length”, Mr Leckey tells me. But, he warns, employers should be aware that senior colleagues who suggest a junior employee join them for a client lunch could be pushing that junior to conspire with them in committing a criminal offence.
Perhaps best to invest in company-wide thermal jackets and opt for hardy meetings outside instead.