The return of hospitality is all snakes and no ladders, says Robin Hutson

03 August 2021 by
The return of hospitality is all snakes and no ladders, says Robin Hutson

The ups and downs of the past few months have offered many snakes but few ladders, says Robin Hutson.

If this past 18-month period were to be characterised by a single, ongoing feeling, it's one of ups and downs, or perhaps more accurately, snakes and ladders. Just when there is a little optimism and hope, that sense seems to be quickly followed by disappointment and set-back.

The prime minister's much-heralded ‘Freedom Day' was anything but that, the theatre of operations dominated by the ‘pingdemic', the sad end result of which is that many businesses have been forced to close – no sense of freedom for them. In fact, quite apart from the scores of team members who have been pinged at our hotels in recent weeks, I too am currently in isolation, having been contacted by NHS Test and Trace to remain at home for 10 days. I have been double-jabbed, PCR-tested and I have no symptoms. Surely if we are to have confidence in PCR testing then the opportunity of ‘test to release' should also be adopted.

Isolation alongside vaccination and testing is clearly a reasonable part of the toolbox to deal with this pandemic, but as anyone in hospitality will confirm, the way this is being deployed is deeply flawed and commercially suicidal.

With rising cases, ‘Freedom Day' certainly didn't create the relaxed, confident trading environment we had all hoped for, with many staff and guests choosing to continue mask-wearing and wary of close contact – and who can blame anyone for that in the face of such uncertainty.

Furthermore, just when we think that perhaps the worst of the pandemic is behind us, there's that further scary black cloud hanging over the industry – the emerging understanding of the full extent of the labour market strangulation. If I stand back and reflect on this, I find it totally bewildering that there appears to be no strategy whatsoever on the part of the British government to replace skilled and semi-skilled workers shut out by Brexit. Not just in our sector, but agriculture, food processing, transport and the care sector, to mention but a few others.

Just when we think that perhaps the worst of the pandemic is behind us, there's that further scary black cloud hanging over the industry – the emerging understanding of the full extent of the labour market

The possibility of sustainable recovery for these sectors has nothing to do with relaxation of Covid measures. Quite simply it's the availability of our most valuable resource – finding people to work due to the tough movement of labour rules triggered by the ill-conceived Brexit fantasy.

I was momentarily encouraged to read that the government had launched a ‘hospitality strategy' to support the recovery of the sector, with the super-capable Karen Jones sitting alongside minister Paul Scully. A useful-sounding ‘ladder' I thought, until I discovered that the ‘snake' in this case was that hotels and tourism are specifically excluded as not being part of this strategy. To quote from the document: "For the purpose of this strategy, hospitality comprises cafés, restaurants, pubs, bars and night-clubs. Visitor accommodation, for example hotels, are part of the wider hospitality sector but fall within the remit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, given their responsibility for tourism."

This shows a crass lack of understanding of the sector. It's yet another example of why we need that minister of hospitality to bind government responsibility and thinking for the whole sector together. This would have been a golden opportunity for some collective thinking, but sadly has turned out to be just another ‘down' following a promising ‘up'.

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