It is in the nature of stories about the hospitality industry that they come with a selection of ready-made metaphors. And so it is that the newly introduced tier regulations for the hospitality sector can variously be described as a collapsed soufflé, a split sauce or, perhaps most appropriately, a complete dog’s dinner.
Last weekend, partly to mollify its own rebellious MPs, the government released the evidence used to justify those restrictions: the closure of all pubs and restaurants in tier three areas, and the rule that venues in tier two could only serve alcohol alongside a “substantial meal”, forcing all those pubs with no food offering to close. It was a thin document, referencing the obvious fact that without social distancing, pubs and restaurants are crowded places where virus transmission is likely. It pointed to super-spreader events in South Korean and Japanese bars and clubs. However, it contained nothing on transmission rates in venues using rigorous infection control measures of the sort introduced in the UK since July.
It certainly didn’t mention the one study, by an economist at Warwick University, which did suggest a link between rising infection rates and the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme throughout August. Then again, it’s a peculiar piece of work. It claims only a correlation – not a causal link – between rainy days when fewer people might have been expected to eat out and lower infection rates. It’s also contradicted by a survey from UKHospitality, the industry’s trade body, which reported tiny numbers of infections among restaurant staff and customers.
Flawed though the government evidence may have been, it did give the industry something tangible with which to argue. Social media thrummed with chefs and restaurateurs insisting their businesses were Covid-safe. But those forensic arguments were quickly pushed to the margins when, urged on by journalists looking for a little light relief, the exchanges degenerated into a jolly story about what actually constituted a substantial meal. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove proposed a scotch egg. Doubtless he thought it was a brilliant choice, establishing his “man of the people” credentials. Or perhaps not. Invention of the scotch egg is claimed by upmarket store Fortnum & Mason as a Georgian grab-and-go food item for aristocrats travelling from London along the Great West Road to their country seats. The perfect choice, then, for a government headed by an old Etonian.
“It was annoying,” says chef Tom Kerridge, who owns a number of pubs and has recently fronted a BBC documentary series about the challenges faced by the sector during the pandemic. “You had Michael Gove laughing and joking about it, which showed a complete lack of respect for an industry that employs three million people. It’s not a laughing matter.” Kerridge describes the government’s late offer of £1,000 for each of those pubs that cannot open at all as “embarrassing and condescending”.
The new rules have also shone a light on just how class-riven our approach to the business of eating and drinking outside the home continues to be. In effect, they said that if you were sufficiently bourgeois enough to want to eat something, you could get as bladdered as you fancied. But if you were some oik who merely wanted to go to the pub for a pint, you could forget about it. As Kerridge puts it: “The people who make these rules live in nice houses with big gardens. Wet-led pubs [with no food offering] are the only space many people have to get out of cramped accommodation.”
Intriguingly, early last week the phrase “substantial meal” was quietly dropped from the guidance, after it transpired it was defined by legal precedent. According to Law Gazette, judges in a 1965 case found that accompanying sandwiches were substantial enough to permit two men to carry on boozing in a hotel under a “supper time extension”. The phrase has thus been replaced with “a table meal”, meaning a “meal eaten by a person at a table”. But not, apparently if that table is in a pub and you only have a pint. But in a theatre, where the nice people that you can trust go, it’s absolutely fine.
The hospitality industry did welcome the introduction of an extra hour to the curfew in which to eat up after last service at 10pm, but otherwise the mood was one of bitterness. “The rules feel arbitrary and unfair,” one leading restaurateur said to me, “particularly when so many businesses are struggling to survive.” The restrictions also demand that people only eat with members of their own household. “If you are fighting for survival and think the rules are unfair are you going to abide by them or are you going to squint at them and conclude it’s not your job to police it?”
It’s a fair question. Policing of Covid-19 regulations has to be by consent. And yet these rules covering the hospitality sector have been so poorly written that such consent has been tested. We have been treated to the bizarre spectacle of police officers wandering around pubs inspecting what’s being served, and reaching a judgment as to whether a piece of pizza, a pastie or, yes, a scotch egg, counts as dinner or not, like they’re your mum. It’s confusing to diners, it’s a waste of police time and most of all it’s grossly unfair to a hospitality sector which has rolled with every punch this pandemic has thrown at it.