Prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed there will be a four-week delay to the much-anticipated ‘Freedom Day' in England, which was due to see the easing of restrictions and end of social distancing next week (21 June).
As a result, the country will not proceed to step four until 19 July, capacity limits for sports, pubs and cinemas will remain, and nightclubs will stay closed. Weddings and wakes will still be able to go ahead with more than 30 guests as long as there is social distancing. Johnson also confirmed pilot events will continue, such as the UEFA Euro 2020 and some theatrical performances.
He said he was "confident" that no more than four weeks would be needed and that if, after two weeks, the government concludes the risk has diminished, a full reopening could come sooner.
The delay is the result of concerns regarding the Delta variant, which has seen cases, hospitalisations and intensive care numbers increase.
Johnson said it was a "very difficult choice" but the four steps to proceed to the next level of Covid restrictions had not been met. Instead the vaccination programme will be accelerated with the aim of having two-thirds of the adult population double-vaccinated by 19 July.
"Now is the time to ease off the accelerator because by being cautious now… we have the chance to save many thousands of lives… We will be in a far stronger position to keep hospitalisations down," he said.
Many hospitality businesses will be devastated by the news, particularly nightclubs which have not been able to reopen since March 2020, and businesses that are not viable under social distancing restrictions.
Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Greene King, said it was a "huge blow" for the industry. He said: "We now face further uncertainty and must wait even longer before we can start profitably trading, something that we have been unable to do since the start of the pandemic. We also risk losing out on the substantial amount of trade that comes with the Euros."
He added that it was "crucial" the government continued to support the industry financially until restrictions are fully eased, with the business rates holiday ending on 30 June, which Mackenzie said increased the company's outgoing costs by £250,000 a day.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said it was "hugely disappointing" and that further financial support was crucial. The sector has already lost more than £87b in sales since the pandemic began and the delay is set to cost it a further £3b, put at risk 300,000 jobs and have a knock-on impact on bookings throughout the summer and into the autumn.
She said: "Simply put, if the supports provided by the chancellor are not sustained and adjusted, businesses will fail and getting this far will count for nought… A single ray of light is that the limit on weddings will be lifted but support must be granted and, crucially, delivered, to the vast majority of other hospitality businesses. Not least, it must reach those who are still unable to trade at all, including nightclubs and those who still cannot operate their main income streams, such as soft play centres, as well as businesses such as contract catering, who operate from other businesses venues and so have been unable to access many reliefs and grants."
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night-Time Industries Association (NTIA), said the prime minister had "switched the lights off" for an entire sector: "This delay will drive confidence in the sector to a new low, culminating in more of our workforce being forced to leave the industry, and customers, who have been starved of social engagement, attending illegal unregulated events in place of businesses that are well-operated, licensed and regulated.
"These businesses are overburdened with debt and so any decision to delay the full reopening of our sector must be paired with a robust financial support package, including additional restriction grants, exclusion from furlough contributions, extension of loan repayment holiday for CBILS/BBS as well as business rates and VAT relief for the next 12 months, not forgetting the £2.6b in commercial rent debt left unresolved."
Alex Proud, owner of Proud nightclubs, said the announcement was a "disaster" for the industry and blamed Boris Johnson for being too slow to stop travel from India amid the spread of the Delta variant.
He said: "It's going to cost us an absolute fortune, we've cancelled load of events and done loads of refunds. Many nightclubs and venues will be unable to open at all or continue to trade at a loss. As usual we pick up the mess that Boris leaves behind him and our industry pays. We're sick and tired and fed up."
Jane Pendlebury, chief executive of HOSPA, the Hospitality Professionals Association, highlighted that under social distancing restrictions many businesses are trading at a loss with the measures hugely limiting the margins at which hospitality can operate. "Many of these businesses have reopened with a reduced ability to trade, but all this does is mitigate the losses of total closure. They're not even breaking even, let alone making anything close to a profit," she said.
Scotland's Strategic Framework should see it move to Level 0 by 28 June, although this is yet to be confirmed, while ministers hope to see Wales move to alert level one on 21 June. Mark Drakeford will confirm any changes later this week. In Wales, further funding of up to £5,000 per business has been made available for those affected by ongoing restrictions, such as indoor attractions and wedding venues, to last them until the end of June.
Photo: Flickr - number10gov