‘We need more’: businesses on plans to lift England lockdown

The government has set out a four-step roadmap for relaxing coronavirus restrictions in England, including likely dates for reopening the hard-hit hospitality industry and non-essential retail. Here we gauge the reaction of businesses to a pathway out of the crisis.

The pub-restaurant chain

Oakman Inns, which operates 28 pub-restaurants and employs 1,000 people across the south of England and the Midlands, has been unable to serve customers in the vast majority of its pubs since mid-December.

Dermot King: ‘There’s no certainty.’ Photograph: Oakman Inns

Dermot King, Oakman’s chief executive, says he is concerned that with hospitality businesses allowed to serve outside only from 12 April at the earliest, they will be highly reliant on good weather until they can let customers indoors, potentially from 17 May. “There’s no certainty,” he says.

Despite the government’s mantra that it will be relying on “data not dates”, he notes, it has not set out any provision to release lockdown earlier should vaccinations and controlling infections go better than expected. King also says the government needs to improve and extend financial help for businesses. “It is untenable and unrealistic to expect businesses to survive without significant help,” he says.

“Boris Johnson has been famous in the past for telling business what it can do with itself and he is certainly backing that up as far as hospitality is concerned.”
Sarah Butler

The nightclub owner

Ioan Roberts (right) and Saad Shaffi, the co-owners of 24 Kitchen Street
Ioan Roberts (right) and Saad Shaffi, the owners of 24 Kitchen Street. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Before the pandemic hit the UK, 24 Kitchen Street – a Liverpool club, music and arts venue – was hosting up to 320 people a night for events ranging from hip-hop to garage and jazz.

Ioan Roberts, a co-owner, says the venue, which previously employed about 20 people, has taken advantage of government support schemes wherever it could. But it is still losing money.

After hearing that the business will not be able to operate as a nightclub until 21 June at the earliest, Roberts says: “I’m not sure how we are going to get there in one piece. The government will need to urgently improve provision for businesses that are forced to remain closed. We need more or we won’t be around.”

The wages of most of the staff are subsidised by the government furlough scheme but the company must still pay 20% or 30% of salaries and will now be forced to ditch about £10,000 of stock.

“We are now in a position where we can’t borrow money from a bank because the moment you mention you’re in hospitality they are not interested. By 5 April we could be bust. We could extend that by letting people go but without our key staff we haven’t really got a business.”
Sarah Butler

The independent retailer

SimpleyNatural makes and sells its own soaps, bath salts, shampoos and other bathing products from two shops in Newark and Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire.

Trisha Sutherns, the owner, has shifted to selling online during the high street lockdowns – delivering local orders herself – and has been surprised by the demand. But she says SimpleyNatural cannot survive as an online-only business: “We are not making money. We are keeping going.”

Her five workers are on furlough and she isbuilding a social media presence and a new website, but the business will be struggling to survive after Easter, when she will need to begin making repayments on a bounce-back loan taken out last year.

On hearing that she will not be able to open until 12 April at the earliest, Sutherns says: “I’m obviously disappointed. That’s past the holiday weekend. Even after 12 April we are going to be really low on trade because people won’t be able to travel and won’t feel confident to be coming to the shop. I’m hoping the councils are ready to back the high street on things like parking and making it feel a safe and friendly environment.”
Sarah Butler

The holiday cottage manager

For Helen Massey, the prospect of a second successive Easter without bookings for her holiday cottages is a blow. Massey, the agent for 16 self-catering properties in the North Yorkshire seaside village of Runswick Bay, will have to wait until at least mid-April before she can take bookings.

Helen Massey
Helen Massey: ‘A lot of people are desperate to see family members.’ Photograph: David Burton/Feature Services

Under the government’s roadmap for easing lockdown, self-contained accommodation will be allowed to reopen in the second phase of measures, most likely from 12 April. However, only members of the same household will be allowed to travel domestically and stay overnight until further restrictions are eased, which will not be before mid-May.

Massey is concerned this could affect bookings during the spring. “A lot of people are desperate to see family members and gather together,” she says. “It will restrict my income because some people will say we’re just not coming because we can’t come with my mum and dad.”

However, Massey is pleased that “joined-up thinking” will allow retail, self-contained accommodation and outdoor hospitality to reopen at the same time in April. “When my guests come on holiday they want to enjoy the things that are on offer nearby.”

A path towards full reopening by late June is cause for celebration for Runswick Bay Cottages and other hospitality firms, but comes on the back of a year of disrupted trade. Those businesses are now concentrating on the summer season as a chance to recoup months of lost income.
Joanna Partridge

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