Variant’s spread casts shadow over reopening of indoor hospitality

Close to a million people went back to work on Monday in more than 50,000 bars, restaurants and hotels across the UK even as business owners questioned longer term reopening plans given the rapid spread of a new Covid-19 variant.

After 14 months of disrupted trading during government-ordered lockdowns, many restaurant and bar owners said initial demand had been strong for dining and drinking indoors.

Hundreds of museums, galleries and cinemas also reopened as people were once again allowed to socialise indoors in groups of up to six for the first time since the start of the year.

But many business owners also worried that the government would not reduce the need for social distancing and other restrictions on June 21 as announced by ministers, setting back their recovery plans.

Downing Street on Monday said a planned review of social-distancing measures later this month could be delayed owing to the spread of the new Covid variant, first identified in India. Bosses warned that any delay or reversal of the reopening road map could cost more jobs.

Richard Dyson was the first customer through the door at Hawksmoor’s borough market restaurant on Monday © Charlie Bibby/FT

Will Beckett, founder of Hawksmoor, the steak chain, said peak times in most evenings were now booked this month. He expects to serve steaks to 14,000 customers this week — roughly the same as in 2019 but a positive result given the chain can only run at 70 per cent capacity because of social-distancing restrictions.

But as he helped set up the first service since the last lockdown at the chain’s restaurant in the Borough district of London at lunchtime, Beckett added that the chain was making sure it opened profitably: “This week will be rammed but it’s a bad indicator of how it’s going to be generally.”

UK Hospitality estimates more than 52,000 venues employing about 900,000 people are reopening this week in England, Scotland and Wales. This is on top of the roughly 26,000 which opened in April for outside trade — about a quarter of the sector. This includes pubs, restaurants, hotels and guest houses, and clubs, with amusement arcades, snooker halls, bowling alleys and bingo halls also opening.

Customers at the Hollywood Bowl in Surrey Quays, London
Customers at the Hollywood Bowl in Surrey Quays, London © Tom Nichols/Reuters

Bowling alley chain Hollywood Bowl reopened 64 centres, and brought back 1,600 employees from furlough. Stephen Burns, chief executive, said that pre-bookings were going well. “We’ve taken thousands of bookings, particularly for half-term and kids parties.”

Cinema chain Odeon said the “vast majority” of its screens had opened on Monday, selling more than 50,000 tickets — “well ahead of our expectations”.

Italian chain Prezzo reported strong demand,significantly ahead of 2019 despite social-distancing restrictions”.

Pub bosses also welcomed the chance to reopen indoors — even those that could open for outdoor hospitality since April say this meant that they only just about broke even.

The British Beer & Pubs Association estimated that 3m pints would be pulled in 45,000 reopened pubs. In the City of London, England’s oldest brewer Shepherd Neame celebrated by taking the Lord Mayor on a horse and cart laden with barrels of beer to the Old Doctor Butler’s Head, a pub first opened in 1616 by the king’s physician.

Lord Mayor of London, William Russell and the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, Jonathan Neame
The Lord Mayor of London, William Russell and the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, Jonathan Neame © Charlie Bibby/FT

Chief executive Jonathan Neame said the pub group will have 95 per cent of its estate open this week — from about two-thirds after the April outdoors reopening — and bringing back the vast majority of its 1,500 staff to full-time work.

If the government eases further restrictions, including social distancing, then Neame said the group would feel confident enough to hire a further 300 people. But he raised concerns about the spread of the new variant, B.1.617.2, which is believed to be more transmissible than other strains.

“Its been a tough road for everyone in hospitality and fingers crossed we don’t go backwards. [The variant first discovered in India] has created a lot of doubt as there are any number of events over the summer and up to 10 days ago everyone was in planning mode.”

In Bolton, one of the areas where the variant first discovered in India has taken hold, leading to a surge in coronavirus infections, people’s plans are already being put on hold.

The town, just north of Manchester in England’s North West, is already fearful of another lockdown with case levels hitting 274 per 100,000 people over a two-week period, according to Public Health England.

Terry Hart on high street in Bolton
Terry Hart: ‘I still think Covid is out of control in Bolton’ © Asadour Guzelian

Many pubs in the town do not plan to open every day or will reduce trading hours.

Terry Hart, 73, who was out shopping in the city centre, said it was too soon to go back. “I still think Covid is out of control in Bolton. I am dying for a pint. But I am not going to die to have one.”

Similar concerns were in London. At lunchtime in Brixton Village, a covered market home to dozens of restaurants, cafés and shops in the south London suburb, diners filtered in slowly on the first day of indoor hospitality reopening in England.

Sheila Fallon, a local resident in her seventies, who was browsing the market stalls for the first time in a year and a half, was “going to avoid restaurants for the time being”.

“I’m not terrified or anything, but after what Boris [Johnson] said about the variants, I’m just being extra careful,” she said.

Across the market at MamaLan, a Chinese street food restaurant without any indoor seating, Geraldine Miller said she had chosen not to eat at an indoor venue as she didn’t want to be “sardined in . . . given the talk of the Indian variant”.

But others took their opportunity on Monday to escape the rain. In Bolton, Dan Povey booked the day off work weeks ago so he could get to the pub on May 17.

Andrew Warman and Dan Povey in a pub
Andrew Warman and Dan Povey in Ye Old Man and Scythe pub in Bolton. Povey took the day off to go to the pub © Asadour Guzelian

“I just wanted to meet my mates and have a pint and a catch-up,” said the telecoms engineer, who was vaccinated on Saturday at one of Bolton’s new walk-in clinics.

“I’ll [now] be fine,” he said, drinking in the 17th century bar of Ye Olde Man and Scythe.

Eric Irvine, a 76-year-old pensioner who has also been vaccinated, was enjoying his first meal out of the year at the Express Cafe in Brixton. “It’s been too bloody cold to eat outside . . . I’m glad to be back having a fry-up.”

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