Telling restaurants to stay open but people not to visit is 'dangerous' message
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Uncertainty over the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant saw large numbers of staff Christmas parties cancelled in Suffolk, though restaurants have reported that festive period bookings remain high.
While restaurant managers have been "holding their breath" over potential restrictions, they believe the quieter recent weeks are because people have been keeping themselves safe so they can enjoy the Christmas period.
Bromeswell-based gastro pub, The Unruly Pig, said it is about 30% to 40% down on bookings currently but believe its focus on safety, such as installing a new ventilation system, will help instil confidence in customers wanting to visit.
"The infamous 'freedom day' back in the summer never happened at The Unruly Pig," said manager Brendan Padfield. "Rather the case that we stayed on the safe side by continuing with our anti Covid-19 measures.
"If we are 30-40% down on bookings, that decrease then has a direct correlation on income at what is traditionally a critical time for hospitality."
Mr Padfield added he is worried about potential restrictions, as hospitality has been "in the front line for too long".
Between March 2020 and May 2021 the gastro-pub was closed for over 10 months due to restrictions, and now he calls the current situation a "lockdown by stealth".
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He added that the Chancellor’s recent financial support package feels like he has "put an Elastoplast over a gaping wound" and that will not stop "hospitality slowly bleeding to death".
A similar sentiment is shared by The Forge Kitchen's owner Grant Owen, who says "the industry as a whole is holding their breath".
The Ipswich-based restaurant has maintained Covid measures throughout the year and is "faring okay".
Mr Owen said: "If we've got to take a lockdown, January is the best time to do it, but I think the damage has already been done to the industry."
A lot of footfall from cancelled Christmas parties had a negative impact, but a delivery and takeaway service can be ramped back up if further restrictions are introduced.
Mr Owen said the hardest thing for him was the uncertainty over the future/ He said: "If you knew you're going to be closed on this date you would plan ahead and say to yourself 'don't order anything, reduce stock'.
"At the moment we're going, 'Are we? Aren't we? Are we?'
"You're nervous if you don't order the stuff, when you are open, can you get the stuff they need at the last minute?"
Paul Milsom, chairman and managing director of Milsom Hotels & Restaurants, said the current picture is "pretty bleak" and the government's current message to the public is damaging the industry.
"'Hospitality should stay open but you shouldn't go to it', is the most dangerous position that could possibly happen for our situation," said Mr Milsom.
"It's not a complete wipe out yet but obviously it's hugely concerning."
The corporate side of his business had lots of cancellations but the restaurants, despite being quieter, are still reasonably busy.
He believes a lot of the cancellations occurred because people were concerned about having to isolate over Christmas.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed there will not be and new restrictions introduced before Christmas, but speculation remains as to when and what action will be taken to curb the growing number of Covid-19 cases in the UK, specifically the infectious Omicron variant.
With regards to future restrictions being brought in after Christmas, he added: "Without doubt we are heading that way.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if we're not onto to some severely curtailed arrangement in restaurants. or a lockdown."
He concluded that the government must not "desert" the industry and that there are no reasons why customers shouldn't come out and have a good time in Covid-safe establishments.