Anger and bewilderment has been expressed by hospitality business owners in Thanet as they face more months of crushing closures or are restricted to takeaway and deliveries.
Pubs, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, indoor attractions and soft play areas are among the businesses that are bearing the brunt of the restrictions as the country moves from lockdown to tier 3 on December 2.
Businesses that have spent thousands of pounds on covid-secure measures, from hand sanitiser stations to screens, track and trace and regular deep cleans, say they are being compelled to stay closed despite seeing no evidence of a greater risk in their venues than can be found in supermarkets or personal care services.
At Margate’s Buoy and Oyster restaurant owners Nadine and Simon Morriss say while they agreed with the first national lockdown in a bid to beat the virus, they now feel the hospitality industry has been sacrificed under a “farcical tier” system.
The couple have run the High Street/Marine Drive restaurant for some five years and their efforts have earned numerous awards. They invested heavily to make the premises covid secure and reduced customer capacity by 50% when they reopened in July after lockdown 1.
Now they are facing £10,000 a month of fixed business costs – with grants barely covering a fifth of this – a threefold hike in insurance costs and wasted products after preparing for reopening only for hospitality to be hit with renewed restrictions.
In a letter to MP Craig Mackinlay – which has been passed to North Thanet MP Roger Gale- Nadine and Simon said: “We absolutely agreed with the first national lockdown as everyone was in the same position and although as a business owner we have financially struggled this year and had to take on loans to be able to pay local suppliers and our growing fixed monthly costs we knew it was nothing compared to the sacrifices that the key workers were making every day.
“After launching takeaway and a brand new recipe box business during the first national lockdown we reopened on July 4, like many other venues, after investing £1000s on additional safety measures and PPE. We remained positive and professional throughout and removed 50% of our covers with a smile despite knowing what this meant for our business. There were no spikes in cases after hospitality reopened.
“We are very proud to not only have reinstated every single employee on our team, but even made new seasonal hires of university and school students for the summer season, again adding to our local economy.
“We have not had a single case of Covid-19 within our premises and our team have maintained stringent measures throughout the last 4 months, reflected in our excellent customer reviews noting this and also in the fact we did not have a single case of Covid-19 linked to our team members or one of our thousands of customers served.
“When we were informed (whilst in tier 1) that we would have to close our doors again in November, we were in the process of renewing our insurance which due to the pandemic has increased three-fold this year. We then had approximately £1000 of wasted stock, knowing no insurance would cover this.
“Each month closed, our fixed business costs are £10,000 per month. This is inclusive of our mortgage, loans, suppliers and as we have 24 staff, the pension and national insurance contributions are now equal to our monthly mortgage repayments.
“We were told we were able to reopen on December 2 and have planned for this, with time and efforts invested on the Christmas season.
“We are not able to transform our business in to a takeaway for a number of reasons, the main one being that we would be risking taking our team members off of furlough without the belief that local takeaway sales in November would even cover the 80% wage of one or two team members, let alone any of the risk involved in wasting food or produce.
“Now that the “National Lockdown” comes to an end I cannot stress enough I am not trying to complain about what Tier we are in as with high rates locally it was inevitable that we would be in Tier 3.
“We are asking one simple question, why hospitality? Every single other industry is about the reopen regardless of what tier we are in.
“Our customers can go to school, go to work, go shopping, go to a spa/gym, go to a salon
“The only premises or sector which is being condemned as unsafe is that in a hospitality setting, where we firmly believe stringent safety measures, customer track and trace, social distancing and deep cleaning is in place and upheld.
“I’m a positive, proactive and hard working business owner and I do love to overcome a challenge. I hate to ‘complain’ and I appreciate the values of rules, sacrifice and patience and I have no worries in “doing what I’m told” when there is a cause and effect explanation or reason for doing something.
“If we are being asked once again to risk losing our businesses, premises, livelihoods and the secure employment we provide to our team members I do not understand why we should not be able to ask why?
“Why are the British public being given a false sense of security and led to believe that a Tier system will protect them or lead to reducing the R rate when there is no evidence for this? Hospitality has been linked to less than 5% of cases this year.
“Why are news outlets trying to make the public believe if they ‘stick to the rules’ they can be blessed with being dealt a better tier next time? If there is an outbreak in a school or care home the local numbers will increase, this has nothing to do with the general public sticking to the ‘rules’ of the tiers and is unfairly shifting the blame on to them and creating a blame culture within our society.
“If the tier system works why has Leicester been in some form of lockdown for 5 months and now finds itself back in Tier 3?
“It would appear that this ‘Tier system’ will be in place until at least April and so all I am asking is that our local council or Government representatives can offer some form of explanation behind the tier system that is in place and that will shape the future of the UK economy and decide the future and survival of every UK business, of every UK industry that finds itself on a knife edge.”
The couple add: “We all know that we will be in lock down for at least January, maybe even February and March again. Why should hospitality be singled out during December with absolutely zero evidence or substantiated reasoning provided by the Government as to why a restaurant/pub is deemed a higher risk environment than swarming Tesco, Primark or McDonald’s?
“We have friends that own independent salons, shops and gyms and are thrilled for them to be able to reopen as, like us, they have proven strict safety measures in place and are much more secure than a school or office environment. However we cannot help feeling we are now getting singled out, left behind and in turn sacrificed for no apparent reason.”
Nadine and Simon ask for the industry to be allowed to reopen or for proportionate grants to get businesses through to March, adding: “The localised grant of £2000 per month only covers the monthly cost of paying the staff furlough NI and pension contributions. Do I have to choose between paying my rent or make 25 local employees redundant?”
The withdrawal of the Job Retention bonus scheme has added to the financial pressures.
The feeling is one that is echoed by numerous affected businesses.
Owners of The Bay Tree hotel and restaurant in Broadstairs, Robert Stone and Alistair Dixon have also questioned whether the ‘tiny’ grants can be reviewed.
The pair, who also invested heavily in covid secure measures, have adapted with home delivery and innovative menus but this does not compensate for the loss of trade.
Robert said: “The current compensation levels are absolutely tiny. We are doing our best to remember this affects all hospitality not just us and we are also very mindful of what is best for the area, guests, staff, neighbours and Thanet. We want to do the right thing and we will not be defeated by this but depending on events we are likely to lobby MP.
“We are awaiting clarification on whether we can open over Christmas whilst in Tier 3 but is it worth opening for a five day period with the cost of getting guest ready and re-stocking?
“We, like many other hospitality venues, have made big efforts to remain spotlessly clean with not one infection yet we are bearing the brunt whilst retail in all tiers will be allowed to trade.
“On the positive side is the work we are doing with Liz and Lenny on our new menus although this won’t bring in anywhere near our normal revenue and we are about to put up an external tree and lights in the window to demonstrate we are still here.”
Marino Morelli, from Morelli’s ice cream parlour in Broadstairs, believes hospitality has become a covid scapegoat.
Taking to social media to vent his frustration he said: “As a caterer and owner of a business in Broadstairs established 88 years ago, I feel I must speak out in defence for all caterers in our area.
“Since March we have all complied with government directives and will continue to do so. However I do believe the hospitality industry are being made scapegoats for government failure to find the answers not just in the UK, but across Europe.
“All caterers have adapted their venues to ensure social distancing and allow their customers to be seated and served in a safe environment. This has worked well since the previous lockdown with absolutely no comeback regarding the spread of the virus within the huge majority of premises.
“All records were kept, no notification of any incidents on our premises were received. Yet incredibly, politicians have decided on tier 3 in Thanet preventing us as an industry from trading.
“We have been in lockdown together with retail for the last month and yet numbers we are told are rising. It is clear then that we are not to blame. The problem lies elsewhere.
“Thanet, we are told, has a high spread of the virus but we are not told how these figures are arrived at or why the spread has greatly risen. It is not from the hospitality industry (locked down since early November) that these high numbers are showing up.
“What is the difference if people go to the supermarket in large numbers passing many other people whilst doing the shopping, or sit at a table having a coffee or drink, respecting social distancing.”
Mr Morelli says businesses are “going to the wall,” adding: “There is a huge swathe of people who have substantial overheads and are struggling to find a way forward. Government loans have to be repaid at some point. The rates holiday and grant were used up long since, but no further offer is forthcoming.
“Compensation is pitiful. Insurance pay outs are being argued rather than honoured and this government has not held them to account. Do those in charge really have any idea of the deep damage they are doing to businesses, the public at large and the economy?”
The government says:
Yesterday (November 27) government published a document which they say is evidence “that hospitality venues are a significant risk for transmission.”
Four SAGE research papers are quoted, with one saying: “Transmission risk is a combination of environmental and behavioural factors: higher risk contacts are those that are close, prolonged, indoors, face-to-face, in poorly ventilated and/or crowded spaces, or involve “loud” activities. “These are all prevalent in the hospitality sector (but not unique to it). The disinhibitory effects of alcohol are likely to exacerbate difficulties with social distancing.”
The most recent data for weekly positive covid cases in Thanet continues to fall with a 72% reduction on the previous seven days.
According to data published by Kent County Council the rate for the isle for the period 18 November to 24 November stands at 450.2 per 100,000 – compared to 516.5 on November 13.
The England average is 173.7 (November 24).
According to the government dashboard, 83 new cases were reported for Thanet yesterday, making 692 in the week up to November 27, a drop of just under 4%. The total number of people in Thanet who have had a confirmed positive test result as of 27 November was 3,735. The rolling weekly rate is shown as 470 per 100,000 but this has a two day lag on the Kent Public Health data.
There were 7 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test for Coronavirus reported on 27 November. The dashboard data says the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Coronavirus as of November 26 was 152.