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Some good news for the hospitality sector at last

by Wayne Bartlett

After the pandemic alert level was reduced from 4 to 3 last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday that progress made in the fight against coronavirus during three months of lockdown means "it will be possible to open up more". In his speech the PM set out plans to allow pubs, restaurants, museums and cinemas to begin reopening from 4 July, as well as stating that the two metre social distancing rule would be reduced to 'one metre plus'. As if to emphasise that things are changing, an email pinged into my inbox shortly afterwards from a holiday company telling me of some undiscovered spots that I could now go and enjoy whilst still practising social distancing, though the thought did strike me that if everybody did this those spots would not be remaining undiscovered for long….

Of course, the opening comes with conditions. These are shaped by the specific features of the virus. They include banning all loud music so that customers do not need to shout to make themselves heard (something that I suspect many of them will welcome anyway …). Planning concessions are under consideration which will enable pubs to use car parks and other outdoor spaces for serving customers to add to any existing beer garden facilities that they might already have. Companies have already spent a lot of money in planning for more hygienic conditions including expenditure on plastic screens, hand sanitizers and the installation of warning signs to help ensure that customers stay on their guard.

The hospitality industry generally has reacted very favourably to be easing of restrictions. Campsite operators reported that request for bookings in early July were so great in number that websites crashed. Domestic holiday locations such as Bournemouth and Brighton have already seen huge activity even before these new measures were announced especially at Bank Holiday weekends. It is likely that this level of activity will now escalate further. It will enable those working in the business to recover something from what was beginning to look like a lost year. With many smaller operators with very limited reserves to fall back on, it could be a lifesaver which if nothing else will hopefully buy them some time, though sadly not in all cases as some have already folded.

Good news though the relaxation is, it is still looking like a very hard year for those involved in the business. Take pubs for an example. In rural areas particularly, pub closures were a common feature even before the emergence of the pandemic. Social changes including perhaps the impact of the tightening up of laws around drink-driving in the last few decades (which of course have had enormous benefits if one looks at road-traffic accident statistics) have already eaten away at the fabric of such establishments meaning that in many cases they have been forced to close in the last few years. For some, the impact of the pandemic may well be the final straw. Emma McClarkin, who is the Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, reported that some pub groups were aiming to open around 80 to 90% of their properties but were only expecting to make a profit from around 10% of these.

As inevitably is the case, the government is trying to strike a balance here. Opening up the hospitality sector for business is aimed to enable those operating within it to have a greater chance of surviving and in turn protect the jobs of those working in the sector. Given the millions of people that work in hospitality, that of course is a very good thing. At the same time opening up in this way inevitably exposes clients to the possibility of an increased risk of coronavirus spread hence the 'one metre plus' social distancing rules. Some union representatives have been critical of the lack of detail in the guidelines around opening up the sector whilst business leaders on the other hand have largely welcomed the flexibility that is contained within them. At least the opening up is taking place in the summer months when it is easier for activities to take place outside thereby decreasing the chance of coronavirus spread. Hopefully by the time we reach the colder winter months the virus will be more under control and, where local outbreaks occur, track and trace arrangements will be developed enough to help isolate these. As always, we live in hope.

… but not for everybody

Not everybody was ecstatic at the PM's announcement. Some sectors have seen a release of lockdown further delayed. One example is that of indoor gyms. Reopening these was thought to be part of Step 3 of the lockdown exit plan, but gyms will not open as hoped on 4 July. In the government's Our Plan to Rebuild document, released on Monday May 11, gyms and fitness studios were originally part of Step 3 of the lockdown exit plan, starting from 4 July. However, Mr Johnson said that indoor gyms are categorised as "close proximity" businesses and will remain shut. Instead task forces will be set up to investigate ways that will allow them to open as soon as possible. The industry reacted with frustration and in some cases anger at what was described as a "catastrophic decision" to give the green light to many sectors of the economy, but not gyms. It is perhaps an understandable reaction when last month the prospect of reopening was dangled in front of the sector but has not been followed through in the PM's announcement.

Quoted in the Financial Times, Mark Sesnan, Managing Director of GLL, which runs 270 leisure and sport facilities on behalf of local authorities, said: "This will be bad for business, bad for jobs and bad for the health of the nation." He added: "The government is ignoring the health of the nation, when it has been proven that conditions such as obesity and diabetes increase the risks associated with Covid-19." Indeed, it is certainly the case that health experts have persistently emphasised the need for the public to keep their underlying health, both physical and mental, in tiptop condition or at least as good as possible during lockdown. However, there was a strong indication that the reopening of gyms will not be delayed for long: the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hinted that indoor gyms and leisure centres could reopen in the middle of July – four months after closing their doors due to the pandemic. The comments of Mr Sesnan and others are perhaps an attempt to make sure that this actually happens.

Gyms and leisure centres are now planning to open "showroom sites" this month in an attempt to reassure the Government, health agencies and their users that they can reopen safely. Measures that are planned to be taken include tasking receptionists with using clickers to count numbers going in and booking systems to prevent overcrowding. Turning up on the spur of the moment will no longer be possible. Gym equipment will be 'socially distanced' so that those working out do not get unhealthily close to each other. Some countries, such as the Czech Republic, reopened gyms and fitness centres to the public in May. Italy however plans to keep its gyms shut, despite the easing of other lockdown restrictions.

The different stances taken by other countries show that gyms for very good reasons create complications in terms of coming out of lockdown. Despite the undoubted health merits of gyms, they provide an example where the nature of the beast – people normally (at least in the past) packed closely together in an enclosed setting with lots of aggravated breathing going on – means that many of the risk indicators associated with Covid are prevalent. To counteract these inherent Covid risks, some serious refinements to existing practices are needed. Even if gyms are allowed to reopen soon, it will likely be with lower numbers of people than in the past, both due to social distancing restrictions and a possible reluctance of some patrons to return any time soon. It will be a while yet before the sector returns to economic health.

Wayne Bartlett is an author for accountingcpd. To see his courses, click here.

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