COVID-19: Businesses across Devon forced to shut at start of critical summer season due to staff shortages

Tourism bosses in Devon say the industry is in “crisis” with cafes, theatres and hotels forced to close due to “extreme” staff shortages after being pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app.

As the school holidays begin, the county is predicting a record number of visitors – up 20% on a normal year.

But there are concerns about whether the industry can deliver what tourists need – with many bookings and reservations being cancelled.

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Devon is expected to see thousands of tourists this summer, with people staying in the UK for their holidays

“We’ve got a crisis. It’s a crisis that’s come at a critical summer for us. It is resulting in an extreme shortage of staff at very short notice. It’s having a devastating impact which is presenting an urgent situation that is forcing many businesses to actually close in high season,” says Carolyn Custerson, the chief executive of English Riviera Bid Ltd which represents the tourism industry in Torbay.

“The timing is unbelievable. We’re all in a state of shock,” she added.

“This was going to be the summer of a golden opportunity, not just for the English Riviera but the whole of the UK because people are taking staycations because they can’t holiday abroad.

“If we don’t sort out what is happening by introducing a test and release process which is what I have been lobbying for, then we will see more and more closures that will impact visitor expectation and their desire to return and that is what I’m most concerned about.”

Torbay can accommodate 28,000 tourists a night and the industry is worth £550m a year.

Carolyn Custerson has been campaigning for a test and release process, to prevent businesses from closing with short notice
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Carolyn Custerson has been campaigning for a test and release process, to prevent businesses from closing with short notice

More than a dozen businesses have had to close in the last week due to staff shortages.

The WeSup bar and café on Torquay harbour has been forced to shut its kitchen.

“Our customers are so confused,” says owner Sean White.

“The government and media say we’re coming out of lockdown, hurrah! But actually, they come to a premise like ours and it feels worse than ever – we’ve got no opportunity to supply the product we are supposed to sell.

Sean White, owner of a bar and cafe in Torquay, has been forced to shut his kitchen
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Sean White, owner of a bar and cafe in Torquay, has been forced to shut his kitchen

“It’s an enormous amount of money and also people’s jobs – if we have a couple of people out in the kitchen, the rest of the kitchen staff don’t have work as there’s nothing for them to do,” he added.

At Babbacombe Theatre, the summer show is ready with a cast of dancers, singers and comedians on the payroll.

But they’ve had to cancel all performances this week as the whole cast is having to isolate.

“It’s hugely disappointing for everyone concerned,” theatre owner Colin Matthews told Sky News.

Colin Matthews (right), owner of the Babbacombe Theatre, spoke from an empty theatre. He has had to cancel all performances this week because the case is having to isolate
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Colin Matthews (right), owner of the Babbacombe Theatre, spoke from an empty theatre. He has had to cancel all performances this week because the cast is having to isolate

“We were so looking forward to the freedom that this week was going to bring us – the cast have not been earning for nearly 18 months, they were so glad to be at work again and for them and the visitors – we’ve had to turn hundreds away who’d already booked.

“This was the week we were going to get back into profit – to lose that right away was a blow. You don’t get it back, it’s gone. You can re-open and start trading again but you don’t get what you lost – so we will feel it hard.”

Other tourist attractions are at risk of closing.

Kents Cavern – a network of prehistoric caves underneath Torquay – has had three staff “pinged” in the last week.

More than 600,000 people have been pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app in one week
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More than 600,000 people have been pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app in one week

Owner Nick Powe told Sky News any plans for relaxation in the isolation rules in August will be too late.

He said: “45% of my business happens in five weeks and if we wait till 16th of August that’s too late.

“We’ve never had to experience this – you come into work and the phone rings and you don’t know what’s happening. The fears are that we have to run a much-reduced activity, refund customers or worst case we have to close.”

Despite restrictions being lifted this week, businesses are worried about having to cancel bookings
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Despite restrictions being lifted this week, businesses are worried about having to cancel bookings

Some businesses in Devon have had to resort to appealing for public help on Facebook.

The Spoken pub in Exmouth had 60% of its staff isolated last week.

Owner George Nightingale looked to locals for help.

He said: “Within 48 hours we’d lost 10 members of staff, just before a glorious weekend of sunshine. We had to seriously reconsider our offering, whether we could even open. We halved our menu and adapted everything. Whilst serving customers I put a call out [on Facebook] for anyone to help.”

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Four locals turned up to help.

“Doing the back of house, pot-washing, carrying drinks out to customers, it was incredible!” added George.

While tens of thousands of tourists are arriving and enjoying the riviera, businesses are concerned that a much-needed summer recovery could be hampered yet again by rising cases and the very technology protecting us.

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