UK hospitality sector urges help to combat virus woes

Jean-Baptiste OUBRIER
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A restaurant employee stands by empty tables in a quiet Covent Garden in central London on March 17, 2020 after the UK government announced stringent social distancing advice

Britain's struggling pub and restaurant chains called Tuesday for fresh government help with coronavirus fallout, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to stay at home to prevent more infections.

Johnson, battling a rapidly-growing COVID-19 crisis, has requested Brits stop non-essential social contact and travel -- and avoid pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres and mass gatherings including sport events.

Monday's "social distancing" announcement sparked concern about the impact on business, especially in the hospitality industry, amid fears of an extensive economic fall-out from the deadly global outbreak.

Johnson meanwhile stopped short of ordering an enforced shutdown -- unlike in France -- and only suggested that Britons should avoid social meeting hubs like pubs and restaurants.

That means many UK establishments currently remain open for business -- albeit empty -- and unable to claim insurance, the Association of British Insurers trade body said.

- 'Condemns us to death' -

"To do that to an industry without any fiscal support whatsoever condemns us to death effectively," said Mark Jones, chief executive of Italian food chain Carluccio's, told BBC radio.

Jones added that "enormous state intervention" is required.

"We are days away from large-scale closures of restaurants throughout the UK," he warned.

Johnson's finance minister Rishi Sunak had last week launched a budget package of stimulus measures worth £30 billion ($39 billion, 34.4 billion euros) to fight the growing threat from the coronavirus epidemic to the economy, including help for smaller businesses.

More assistance is now expected.

Britain's hospitality sector has endured a torrid few years, including drastic restructuring and job losses, as a result of weak economic growth, souring consumer sentiment, fierce supermarket competition, high taxation and Brexit uncertainty.

- Catastrophic for jobs -

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade association Hospitality UK, warned the development was "catastrophic for businesses and jobs" in the sector.

"This announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good, and hundreds of thousands of job losses," she said.

"Over the past few weeks the industry has suffered unprecedented drops in visits and many business are already on their knees," she said.

"This latest advice leaves the industry in limbo, with no recourse to insurance.

"The government must act now to stop them going under and protect the people's jobs."

Restaurateurs and pub owners have won sympathy across the industry.

Influential food critic Jay Rayner said the outrage was justified, and the government insisting a shutdown without them being able to claim insurance was "staggeringly reckless".

French chef Raymond Blanc said the hospitality industry was being "sacrificed" and "battered" -- and above all, left in the dark.

The British Beer and Pub Association trade body assessed the sector faced an "existential crisis" as a result of Johnson's guidance.

The organisation called upon the government to cancel or cut taxes in the struggling sector to help it survive.

However, not all of Britain's hospitality sector is on the same page.

- 'Colossal' impact -

Tim Martin, boss of British pub chain JD Wetherspoon and vocal Brexit supporter, argued that Johnson has taken the wrong step.

"I believe the government will make a tactical error in resorting to de-facto lockdown," Martin said in a statement.

"The difference in keeping the hospitality industry open, even with reduced sales, is colossal," he added.

"The industry contributes £120 billion a year of tax and six million jobs," added the head of Britain's biggest pub chain.

The government measures have also sparked the closure of cinema chains including Cineworld and Odeon, as well as London's world-famous West End theatres.