‘It’s a business nightmare scenario’ – pubs group owner hits out at ‘conflicting’ government advice
PUBLISHED: 11:33 17 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:33 17 March 2020
A pubs group owner has slammed the government approach to the hospitality sector amid the coronavirus crisis as “utterly ridiculous”.
Philip Turner, of the Chestnut Group – which runs 11 pubs across East Anglia employing 340 people – was left stunned after prime minister Boris Johnson advised people not to go out while stopping short of ordering entertainment venues to close.
Without a mandatory closure order, the industry – which has warned it now faces an existential crisis – fears businesses will not be entitled to insurance payouts.
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At a press conference in Downing Street on Monday afternoon (March 16), Mr Johnson said: “You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.”
However, he said he didn’t believe it would be necessary to use the government’s powers of enforcement to close public venues.
Mr Turner was left fuming at the prime minister’s statement – which he says has effectively left the sector in limbo, with no clear indication of what to do about staff and guests.
“Obviously revenues are going to be severely impacted by the government advice,” he said. “It’s a business nightmare scenario. If we ran our business like the government is running this crisis we would go bust immediately. It’s a series of decisions that are conflicting, and make no sense whatsoever.”
But he added: “I’m not anti having to close pubs – if it needs to be done, it needs to be done.”
Prior to the latest statement, Mr Turner had already implemented strict new measures across the group to reduce risk, such as banning cash and introducing a strict cleansing routine.
The business had also been stock-piling essentials such as cleaning chemicals and hand sanitisers, with plans for complete sanitisation of areas as necessary.
Now the group is simplifying its menus and introducing a new home delivery or takeaway service for customers in a bid to keep staff on by providing some income during what will inevitably be a very difficult time for the business. It is launching the measure in eight of the 11 pubs immediately, with the others to follow.
It is also monitoring the temperature from when they come in, every few hours, and sending them home if they are running a temperature.
Mr Turner, an ex-banker, had planned for “worst case” scenarios including mandatory closure – which he would have supported if it was deemed necessary. But he had believed that while the government might decide to implement this for large urban pubs or possibly in London, rural venues such as his would be safe. However, by stopping short of a government-imposed closure, pubs and other venues have been left with the worst of all worlds, he believes.
“It’s the worst possible outcome and I think the industry is going crazy this morning,” he said. Business interruption insurance was an area “fraught with complexity”, he added.
“I think what’s absolutely clear is that what he has done by providing this advice provides zero cover to any businesses who are going to see a dramatic fall in revenue.”
His best hope now is that the government was “buying time” with the announcement and that it will organise itself with the insurance companies before changing its stance, he said. In France, where a complete closure of hospitality businesses was imposed, the government has put aside far greater sums to back business, he pointed out.
He remained mystified by the conflicting advice being offered by the UK government, he said, as he called for “clarity of advice, thought and actions” from the government. “The government is advising people not to go to pubs and clubs but they are not including people who work in pubs and clubs,” he said.
He is doing what he can to mitigate against the developments, and faces the headache of what to do with 1200 to 1400 bookings for Mother’s Day this Sunday across the group.
The group founder, who has spent six years building the business, is now looking at what he can do to safeguard jobs through measures such as sabbaticals and other options.
“I’ll not treat our people the same way as the government is treating our industry,” he said.
Chestnut Group pubs – many of which also have guest accommodation – include the Westleton Crown, the Ship at Dunwich, the Rupert Brooke in Grantchester, the Northgate in Bury St Edmunds, the Black Lion in Long Melford, the Weeping Willow at Barrow, the Eight Bells in Saffron Walden, the Crown Inn in Stoke-by-Nayland, the Globe Inn in Wells-next-the-Sea, the Three Blackbirds at Woodditton near Newmarket and the Packhorse, also near Newmarket.