The hospitality sector has shared its outrage over being unfairly scapegoated when Covid-19 infections rose last year and has called for its own designated minister.
Next Monday will see parliament discuss the Seat at the Table’s campaign’s petition, after it received almost double the required signatures it needed to get it there.
The campaign has seen the industry get together, backed by leading entrepreneurs and chefs including Robin Hutson, Tom Kerridge and Angela Hartnett, after what has been a torrid eight months as it has tried to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Seat at the Table campaign is calling for a designated Minister for the hospitality sector
Restaurants, pubs, hotels, bars and many other venues in the hospitality industry have been forced to closed several times since the nationwide lockdown was implemented in March 2020, and remain closed today across most of the UK.
This has often been done at short notice, causing severe financial and emotional strain and what’s more, the sector was made to take the fall as the cause when infections rose shortly after the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out campaign.
Members and supporters of Seat at the Table feel having a hospitality minister would care for it better and help promote the importance of the its economic, social and employment contribution to the country, while driving strategy and advancing its status.
Representation in parliament is currently split between two departments: the department for business, energy and industrial strategy and the department for digital, culture, media and sport.
As the UK’s third largest employer, the industry feels it needs a clear and strong voice.
The sector is responsible for five million jobs and generates a £130billion contribution to the economy, yet it has been at the mercy of what it believes to be disjointed decision making and subsequent scapegoating.
The (currently closed) Greenhouse restaurant at The Pig in Brockenhurst in the New Forest
The organisers behind the campaign said: ‘Many of the restriction challenges we have faced might have been avoided if our representation in government had operational experience and a deeper understanding of the sector.
‘Pubs and restaurants are more commonly referred to when the hospitality industry is discussed in the media or in parliament, but there are so many more elements that make up this wonderful industry.
‘Hotels, cafés, bars and B&Bs are often overlooked in the narrative. We share a seat at our tables, we deserve a seat at the top table.’
The petition was started by chef Claire Bosi in October 2020 and Seat at the Table was created in early December, by a team of management trainees put together by Robin Hutson (pictured), founder of The Pig Hotels, to find ways to build support for it.
On 6 December, the campaign kicked off its 30 days of promoting 90 different hospitality venues, giving them a voice, and sharing what it would mean to them to have that voice heard in parliament.
The campaign came to a close this week and as at Friday 8 January, the petition has around 197,000 signatures – almost double the required 100,000 need it to get it to parliament in the first place.
Robin Hutson of The Pig Hotels said the sector has been ‘unfairly scapegoated’
Lydia Rigby, of Seat at the Table, told This is Money: ’The response has been absolutely phenomenal and we are extremely grateful to all who have not only signed the petition but also shared and promoted our media.
‘We have had support from both those in the industry, those that play vital roles in the supply chain as well as those outside the industry entirely.’
She added that a designated minister is something the industry has wanted for some time, and not just as a result of the pandemic.
‘This has been discussed for years and one of the primary focuses with our messaging is to ensure this campaign is not just for a moment in time.
‘This could have massively helped us over the past eight months which have been devastating but our focus now is the next five, ten years and beyond.’
Meanwhile campaign trailblazer, Hutson, said, ‘If 2020 has shown us anything it’s how little Government understands the complexities and the power of the hospitality sector.
‘More importantly, it doesn’t understand how vital the hospitality sector is not only to the economy but also for employment and to the nation’s happiness and overall mental health. This industry must have a powerful voice within government.’
Robin opened his first Pig Hotel in 2011, and now has eight across the UK in various counties including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Kent.
Turnover in 2020 fell by almost £10million from the previous year, heightened by the ‘stop-start’ nature of the Government’s decision-making which Robin says has been challenging to manage.
He said: ‘There was some good support initially at a high level in terms of the furlough scheme but the Government have tripped up imposing unnecessary rules that have severely impacted the sector for no health benefits.
‘Changes to rules without warning has created operational challenges and while the sector has invested heavily to make it safe, it felt unfairly scapegoated with harsh measures when cases rose towards the end of the summer last year.’
‘Just flicking a switch doesn’t work’
Neil Potts, co-founder of The Vurger Co, which has three restaurants across London and Brighton, said the past year has been extremely tough.
‘One thing that made it worse was the shock stopping and starting of everything,’ he said.
‘Being told to close is hard enough but at least you can then prepare and communicate with your team. But just flicking a switch to make a change and do it instantly doesn’t work.’
In terms of revenue, the business is down by around 40 per cent year on year, despite a busy summer when things temporarily reopened and especially during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
The Vurger Co was busy during the summer at its three sites in London and Brighton
Neil added: ‘The scheme was good for us but the resulting accusations that we were to blame for the sudden rise in infections was unfair.
‘I stand by the fact I don’t believe it was restaurants that have caused the acceleration, then or now. Being close to and inside the industry, I see how safe it is.
‘There is cleaning happening a million times a day, sanitiser, screens, you name it. I don’t believe we were the problem and I think that’s clear as we have been closed for so long, well before the most recent rise.’
Customers can order The Vurger Co’s signature vegan burger meal kits to try at home
Neil said he has managed to keep the business running by offering takeaway and delivery services as well as the introduction of a new meal kit offering its signature vegan burger for customers to enjoy at home.
‘The meal kit did really well at launch and has only grown in popularity. We are looking to add new meal kits very soon.’
Meanwhile, English chef and protégée of Gordon Ramsay, Angela Hartnett, who is also one of the leading supports of the Seat at the Table campaign, said all her restaurant sites were ‘devastated’ as a result of the closures in 2020.
She said: ‘Even later in the year, despite being allowed to open, the series of restrictions placed on hospitality, such as the rule of six, 10pm curfew, and only allowing single households, resulted in operations that saw trading potential severely hampered at best and loss-making at worst.
‘Targeted support was needed for the worst-hit sectors such as hospitality while focus was needed on supporting businesses to enable them to survive rather than simply job preservation.
‘The biggest issue being unpaid rent. The risk is of mass insolvencies in the coming months as rent is pursued.’
Angela Hartnett is one of the key supporters of the Seat at the Table campaign
Angela understands that the Government was faced with an unprecedented crisis in the form of the pandemic and that anyone would have struggled. But that said, she feels lessons did not seem to be learnt as the year progressed.
‘We were faced with a series of last minute decisions, poor forward guidance, mixed messaging and what seemed an irrational focus on hospitality as the driver of infection,’ she added.
‘We need a voice in the Government with an understanding of the complexity of the hospital sector who can really support us during times like these.’
Small Business Essentials
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.