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Get Out To Help Out: London's pubs and restaurants unfair roller-coaster amid the pandemic

The rule of six, 10 pm curfew, substantial meals, same household checks, outdoor dining.

With so many aspects to take into account when dealing with such unprecedented times, pubs and restaurants in London had to involuntarily jump in a rollercoaster of demanding rules. These mandatory regulations, introduced thick and fast, and most of the time, unclear, by the government, have been rolled out to curb the spread of COVID-19.

With no real representative for this industry amongst the policymakers, pubs and restaurant had to promptly respond to new strict rules that continue to be adopted despite an evident lack of supporting scientific evidence. Although justified by the imminent threat that the virus poses, quite often these adjustments are set out without considering the real impact they have on those businesses and ultimately the real benefits that can be passed on to the customers.

After reopening their doors after almost four months on July 4th, the venues are ready to safely welcome customers again by redesigning the dining experience to allow a safe environment and ensure social distancing. But shortly after, a series of unfortunate events piled out testing the resilience of this industry and those working for it.

🍝August/September 2020: Eat out to Help Out Scheme

In a move to increase customers confidence and help pubs and restaurants get back on their feet, the Government launches the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme (EOTHO).

Customers are able to get a 50% discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks (up to a maximum of £10 discount per person). The offers can be redeemed every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday between 3 and 31 August, as many times as they like. Many restaurants take part in this initiative supported by the Government and extend the offer through the month of September.

The scheme, where the desired outcome was a rise in consumers confidence amid the pandemic and increase revenues for the hospitality industry, eventually led to the opposite direction.

First and foremost, food waste rose across the sector.

“Food waste went through the roof during the scheme, people over-ordered on discounted food meaning platefuls were being chucked in the bin,”

said Mark Hall, Founding Director at BusinessWaste.co.uk

“It’s the old psychological pull of buying things because they’re on offer, which ultimately means more food going to waste because customers have eyes bigger than their bellies.”

Despite the scheme seeing over 100 million deals claimed by the industry, some businesses restocked for a higher demand of customers that never showed up, with surplus food ending up in the bin (which rarely is the correct waste stream, due to a current absence of regulations towards their disposal).

The rule of six is reintroduced following a spike in COVID-19 cases, and mandatory face masks for both the staff and the guests come into force (after two whole months without).

At the end of the same month, a new 10 pm curfew for pubs and restaurants is installed. Backed up by the 'evidence' of the diseasing spreading faster later at night due to more alcohol consumed, the curfew leads hospitality staff to be in charge of making sure that all venue doors are shut on the dot. This is enforced with a series of fines, with examples of a burger restaurant fined £1,000 after handing a take-away meal to a customer at 10:04 pm, just four minutes after the coronavirus curfew. Another low blow on a industry who has so promptly adapted to the quick and demanding COVID rules from the Government.

Needless to say how, once again, the curfew generated more bad than good. Both in terms of revenues for the businesses, and more importantly, in terms of influencing an unhealthy drinking habit of customers squeezing the same amount of drinks into a short period of time. Moreover, shutting all venues at the same time, translated in crowded streets and public transport, making it impossible to stagger exits and creating threatening clusters of people.

📈October 2020: business 'as unusual'

After the EOTHO scheme persuaded many to dine outside, the industry gets quickly blamed for a rise in infections without real evidence. Another unpredicted outcome generated from the scheme.

At the beginning of October, supported by the University of Warwick, Boris Johnson claimed that the Eat Out to Help Out may have contributed to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

"Insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus then obviously we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we're proposing,"

he reported to the BBC.

Although these assumptions are not backed up by any reliable statistic, it is important to stress the fact that the hospitality industry can be said to be the only one to have adopted and carried out consistently the NHS track and trace system, as opposed to other venues such as supermarkets. This can contribute to a higher number of reported cases simply due to the lack of other outlets recording and collecting visitors' personal details.

Ultimately, on the 31st of October (on the subject of spooky events) hospitality gets almost four trading days to prep and store the food ahead of a 'circuit breaker' lockdown beginning on 5th November.

🏠 5th November 2020: Lockdown 2.0

During this second lockdown, some businesses re-adopted take away as a mean to keep the business afloat, although it represents another scorn for an industry already on its knees.

🍻2nd December 2020: Tier 2 (Substantial Meals)

London's hospitality businesses reopen their doors to the public, but the quiet won't last long. With London in Tier 2, mixing of households is only allowed outdoors, meaning greater cash flow investments to allow consumers to dine al fresco (also, meaning catch a cold, but at least it's not covid).

The Government finally allows customers for an extra hour to consume their drinks, altering the previous 10 PM curfew where people had to leave the premises on the dot.

In this new Tier system, customers are required to order a 'substantial meal' when consuming alcohol. A substantial meal means a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal, although open to interpretation.

With Tier 2 coming into force, substantial meals are served with a lack of substantial evidence. Regardless of being eaten or not, the food becomes an alibi for guests in order to be able to consume alcohol. With these meals averaging £8/£10, and the closure of cocktail bars and other ticketed venues, for some, this is a reasonable price to pay to be able to consume alcohol. Once again, the Government has failed in taking into consideration the consequences of their regulations, dangerously demeaning the value of food.

With another lack of scientific evidence to support this rule, an impact assessment from the Scottish government declares:

Combining drinking with a main meal cuts the effect of the alcohol as well as reducing the volume and speed of consumption.

But obviously, as mentioned before, no one can really force customers to eat what's on their plate (if that was the case, they would have at least solved the food waste problem).

Many restaurants and pubs have reported an astronomical amount of food waste, which aren't feasible to be redistributed once they have been handed out to customers. George Purnell, founder of Koop + Kraft restaurant told The Caterer:

It was impossible to cut portion sizes as meals legally had to be a ‘substantial' size. Everyone in the industry saw this problem coming. It will be like the 10pm curfew, which didn't make sense. The government are on the wrong side of history on this.

In the space of five months, all the regulations have added up leaving the hospitality staff with more rules to follow than time to do their job (whilst playing another role: the fun police)

  • Ask customers to leave their details for the NHS track and trace system (bearing in mind that other outlets, such as non-essential shops and supermarkets, do not require any registration);

  • Remind customers (and baby-sit them) to wear a mask when not seated;

  • Make sure customers from different households do not mix indoor;

  • Prevent people from mixing and no more than six people seated at one table;

  • Persuade customers to remain seated allowing only trips to the toilet;

  • Ensure customers consume a 'substantial meal' when consuming alcohol;

  • Make sure the tables are turned quickly to avoid customers seating and drinking for longer than 2 hours (inside) and 3 hours (outside)

  • Persuade people to leave the premises before 11 pm, or get fined.

All of this, whilst delivering great customer service. Cheers, Boris.

🍔16th December 2020: Tier 3 (Take Away Only)

Just after a couple of weeks, Matt Hancock announces London moving into Tier 3 with 72 hours notice, destroying hopes for a 'semi-normal' Christmas.

Bulks of food ordered to accommodate the substantial meal demand and the building up to Christmas, have just a couple of days to be saved (or disposed of).

The hospitality industry then tries to readapt and delivers take away, allowing savvy Christmas shoppers to be able to purchase their take away mulled wines (remember, non-essential shops remained open in Tier 3).

But once again, shortly after the introduction of this new challenge, almost overnight, the hospitality suffers another event aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

After Tier 1, 2 and 3, a new, higher Tier is introduced. Tier 4, which sounds better than 'lockdown'. Just like 'plant-based' sounds better than 'vegan' to some.

🍺20th December 2020: Tier 4 (Alcohol becomes essential)

Literally overnight (from Saturday 19th to Sunday 20th), all non-essential shops are required to close, and people are asked to 'stay at home' and leave the premises only for essential trips. But here's the trick: pubs are allowed to serve alcohol, despite people being asked to stay at home, leaving restaurants and pubs in a limbo.

🔮What's next?

With the industry unbelievable resiliency and flexibility to adapt to quick changes, the Government has failed in supporting this industry and the sustainability of our planet, offering no real solutions to a real challenge.

What we can hope for, is for a new set of regulations aimed at the recovery of the industry as well as allowing people to safely return to dine outside. Hopefully this time, supported by real scientific evidence and consideration towards the sustainability of these new rules.

The Food Waste Project aims at helping pubs and restaurant to become more sustainable whilst reducing their operational costs, in particular during such hard times for the industry.

Find out more on our website to see how we can help your business become even more resilient ahead of the next challenges.

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