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For a man who seems to view a pint of beer as a photo opportunity rather than a highly enjoyable way to spend time with friends, or at the very least an alternative form of lubrication, perhaps the Prime Minister’s apathy towards the pub industry isn’t all that surprising.
Yet, that of course isn’t nearly enough to explain the Government’s demonisation of the hospitality sector. We may not be in full lockdown yet but the 10pm curfew is a massive blow to a sector still reeling from a three-month shutdown earlier in the year, as well as the time, effort and money that has gone into making premises Covid-safe.
Wetherspoon spent £15m on hygiene and social distancing measures to ensure its sites were safe when they reopened, and yet now ministers are considering following the example of Nicola Sturgeon and imposing a second shutdown in hotspot areas because, we are told, there is growing evidence that drinking in pubs has been tied to localised outbreaks. Operators must be wondering why they bothered trying to Covid-proof their premises in the first place. Will they be reimbursed for the costs?
Keir Starmer may look like he’s never set foot in a pub in his life but he’s right to demand that the Government publishes the evidence to support this. One suspects it’s either flimsy, or worse, simply doesn’t exist, hence the growing backlash among Tory MPs.
It might also explain why Robert Jenrick was forced to correct himself on the Today programme, having claimed that there was proof the hospitality sector was part of the problem with regard to infection rates. More likely it was “just common sense”, the minister for local government quickly conceded.
I’m sorry but that’s not good enough. Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin may often sound like he’s been getting high on his own supply but the outspoken Brexiteer is right to be furious at such talk.
Wetherspoon has only managed to weather the storm by tapping the Government’s business interruption loan scheme for £48m and going cap in hand to shareholders for £141m. It has also been granted some clemency from lenders on its banking covenants and cut hundreds of jobs. And yet the chain still expects to make a loss this year. Smaller, independent operators don’t have the same levers to pull. Many simply will not survive another shutdown.
It’s been said many times before but it is still worth repeating. The hospitality industry is hugely important to the UK economy. It employs more than 3m people. Pubs are a mainstay of the high street, a bedrock of many local economies, and the beating heart of towns and villages up and down the country. The great British pub helps to bring in tourists and people from other parts of the country or neighbouring towns, and it provides a vital focal point for local residents, many of whom would be desperately isolated without somewhere to go and socialise. Let them die and whole communities will suffer.
I worked in hotels, restaurants, bars and pubs throughout my student years, usually at weekends, more often than not into the small hours, and always for very little pay. It is an industry built on blood, sweat and tears and one that survives on very thin margins.
And yet, publicans and restaurateurs are being hung out to dry on the basis of little, if any, scientific evidence. The very least that the Government should be doing is providing targeted relief otherwise many pubs simply won’t open again and that would be a huge loss to the fabric of this country.
Lots for Hughes to get his teeth into
With a nickname like “Rottweiler”, Martin Hughes needs to be careful he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew with a bid for struggling telecoms provider TalkTalk.
At an offer price of just 97p a share, Hughes would be buying close to the bottom but there’s still a risk he’s throwing good money after bad, having assembled a 29pc stake since 2016. TalkTalk’s problems have always been the same. It is a debt-laden ragbag of early broadband contenders, which have conspired to create a legacy of IT chaos, exposed by a series of cyber attacks, one of which was the work of a teenager.
Boss Tristia Harrison has done a decent job of simplifying pricing and the cost base. However, its retail customer base has long been in decline and, as a budget provider, it simply doesn’t have the clout to compete in a world of bundled pay-TV and mobile services.
Founder Sir Charles Dunstone has pinned his hopes on TalkTalk being big enough and annoying enough that one of its bigger rivals will buy it. He also imagined getting more than £1.1bn for it. Having timed the sale of Carphone Warehouse perfectly six years ago, the entrepreneur has left it too late this time.
The tycoon will surely be hoping for a better outcome than the time he and Hughes backed Spinvox. Investors were wiped out after its bona fides were questioned and the tech unicorn ran into financial difficulties.