Lockdown Two by Alistair Scott

6th November 2020

Lockdown two by Alastair Scott
I find the psychology of the second lockdown fascinating. In the first lockdown everyone was scared and wanted to follow government advice, this lockdown is different with bookings for the next few days up to closure way up on last week as people want to go to the pub for the last time before staying at home for a month. I suspect, or hope, therefore that when we open up again it will be with immediate pent-up demand rather than the rather timid excursions after lockdown number one.

As operators, last time we closed without a furlough scheme (or maybe there was but I didn’t notice because I was already drowning my sorrows), whereas now we have a scheme that we understand; we also have an end date (probably) for the closure period. The furlough scheme also allows us to furlough on a part-time basis, so this time we can do takeaways and any other activities where we only need our team occasionally. So, we have more tools and flexibility with which to minimise our losses.

Not all is good however. As a result of the curfew, we were planning to open up an off-licence because, as a village pub, Tesco is a ten-minute drive away. This idea is on hold until the government sees the injustice of allowing Tesco to sell alcohol and a ready meal (without VAT) while the hospitality industry cannot and has to add VAT. So, we will need to use the delivery process that allows us to sell alcohol and hot food – at what distance away does it count as a delivery?

What else are we doing this lockdown?
We are going to use the time to build things for the future that we will want to maintain as part of our new long-term operations. This is a big list and we probably won’t be able to do all of it, but it includes:

Creating a takeaway offer, an off-licence, a provider of high-class ready meals, a village shop and a coffee and bacon sandwich takeaway. Whereas we couldn’t justify any of this before, we now can, and it will be interesting to see if we can break even on this in the next four weeks. I suspect not but we will give it a go and learn how to do it well.

Improving our customer offer – we can get our distillery going properly, we can start on our next menu and we can re-plan what will be a weird Christmas.

We are also going to use the closure period to practise doing weddings. We think one of our biggest opportunities when the market reopens are large functions but we have never done them before, so we will get ourselves as well prepared as possible for the wedding business.

And finally, we will focus on improving operations. We will look for alternative EPOS providers, we will refine our menu specs and we need a better in-house communications tool.

We have now decided who we are going to furlough and who we won’t. We only have one member of our management teams who is not eligible for furlough, and nearly all of our staff are eligible. Because staff accrued a lot of holiday during Eat Out To Help Out, we are also going to ask staff to take all their holiday, including holiday that will be earned in December, during the lockdown period.

But the big question remains about whether we will get to reopen in a month from now. I have a personal belief the government has, yet again, suffered from the law of unintended consequences, and this will now be combined with high levels of civil disobedience. The consequence of the curfew has been (in my view) that people have migrated to the home where there is no supervision and social distancing has been more poorly observed than in supervised premises. The consequence of this lockdown could be the same, with even more socialising in the home and, as a result, far less dramatic reduction in virus cases.

I would love to see the government being brave enough to reverse the decision to restrict hospitality, and instead ban socialising in the home but allow supervised socialising in the hospitality world. That would get the industry going again and I hope achieve a better result.

So, here’s hoping that we are able to reopen without a curfew in early December, and able to give our customers the Christmas they want and deserve.
Alastair Scott runs Malvern Inns, a small chain of pubs with bedrooms, and is also chief executive of S4labour

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