During the weekend, the Government ruled that although people using public transport and visiting shops must wear face masks beginning on Tuesday (30 November), those using pubs, restaurants and other on-trade venues would be allowed to do so without having to wear face coverings.
Pub operators have met the news with varying opinions with some having not stopped the use of face masks at their sites and others more sceptical about the move.
NTIA chief executive Michael Kill said: “The reported detection of the new variant in the UK is hugely concerning. We are encouraged by the Government’s decision not to mitigate against hospitality and night-time economy settings, with the additional measures presented by the PM, including wearing masks within shops and on public transport in England, coupled with more stringent border controls for visitors entering the country as a first response.
“Although somewhat tentative about the coming weeks, [we] need to be clear the sector is still extremely fragile and will not survive further trade inhibiting restrictions or a potential lockdown.
“The current baseline mitigations within businesses across this industry have been extremely effective. Coupled with the vaccination programme, we must remain confident that we are in stronger position to deal with variants than many other countries across the world.”
A British Beer & Pub Association spokesperson said: “We welcome the Government’s decision not to enforce facemasks in pubs. Hospitality is a safe environment with less than two percent of Covid outbreaks traced to venues, so restrictions need not be placed on our sector at this time – and particularly during the festive period where we visit the local to see friends and family.”
Kate Nicholls OBE, chief executive of UKHospitality said the body supported the Government's response to the new variant, which strike a balance between swift action to protect health, while avoiding the significant economic, social and mental health harms associated with broader restrictions.
She said: “It is important to remember that hospitality operators have invested significantly to ensure the safety of staff and customers, focusing on better ventilation, hygiene and sanitation, measures which SAGE recommend are the most effective measures of infection control. This means hospitality venues will be far safer places to socialise with family and friends this Christmas than at home.
“However despite this, the chilling talk of Plan B is already being felt across hospitality as bookings are cancelled and plans changed. There is no doubt that this will have a damaging effect on businesses, just as they head into their key trading period.
"This all comes at a critical time for the sector, as costs are rising across the board, supply chain issues continue, chronic labour shortages show no sign of easing and next year will see a return of 20% VAT rate.”
Chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping Steven Alton commented: “Throughout the course of the pandemic, our professionally run pubs have been places for people to socialise safely.
"We are concerned about the potential impact of the new Omicron variant, but welcome the recognition from Government that hospitality venues remain important as safe spaces for social connection between friends and family.”
Masks could lead to closures
Revolution Bars chief executive Rob Pitcher also backed the Government. he said: “We support the Government’s decision to not make face masks compulsory in hospitality settings as to do so would mean moving back to a ‘fully seated’ operation and this would lead to the closure of large parts of the night-time economy, which, in turn, would need to see the reintroduction of furlough among other forms of Government support. Little is known about the new variant, however, we do know that different variants are going to be part of life going forward and we need to learn to live with that.”
Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig, Suffolk, said: “In truth, we are a little bewildered as to the logic of the Government – why supermarkets and shops but not pubs and restaurants is difficult to understand.
“At the Unruly Pig, we have never stopped wearing masks – it is as if the infamously called ‘Freedom Day’ had never happened. We therefore require all customers to wear masks upon entry and when in the public areas of the pub. Needless to say, all the front-of-house team wear masks all of the time. My approach or mantra has been ‘just to be on the safe side’.
“Most customers have welcomed this stance though, inevitably, not all. We have certainly had some customers vocally insist the pandemic is over and that mask-wearing is therefore pointless. Sadly, Covid-19 is far from over as recent developments all too sadly illustrate.”
Heath Ball, licensee of the Red Lion & Sun, Highgate, north London, added: “Boris was his usual self in this last briefing – a few headlines and leaving everyone else to press for some detail. Thankfully, a journalist was on hand to ask about masks in the hospitality industry or we may still be wondering what fate awaited us.
“As it stands, it seems we have avoided masks, but I fear it’s a short-lived luxury. That said, I think the reintroduction of masks is the least of our worries. Due to the issues in the supply chain, we, like many operators, bought Christmas stock some time ago and are sitting on a great deal of money that needs to be turned into cash and profit in December. What we can’t have is another lockdown and the cancelling of Christmas – that may be the final straw for many businesses in our sector.”
Susceptible to infection
Staff at the Boot in Sarratt, Hertfordshire, which is operated by Zoe Eliasson, made a return to wearing face masks some time ago. Eliasson explained: “I decided to tell my team back at the beginning of September to go back to wearing face masks. Lots of our staff are in full time education or have young children who, obviously, are yet to be vaccinated and therefore are much more susceptible to picking up the virus and/or carrying it.
“I felt it was my duty to protect my workforce as well as myself, my family and my guests as much as possible. It is a huge shame guests are unable to see our faces and expressions, plus it does make it difficult to make ourselves heard in a busy restaurant. But in order to show guests that we are taking the situation seriously, it was the only option for me.
“The rumour of future lockdowns is terrifying – and totally unjustified in my opinion. Perhaps the idea of lockdowns for those unwilling to be vaccinated is the way forward? The hospitality industry (as well as so many others) has suffered enough so we at the Boot will do everything we can to continue operating in a safe and sensible manner.”
Rob Barr who operates the Onslow Arms, Loxwood, West Sussex, which recently won the Great British Pub Award in the Best Pub For Families category, was encouraged by the Government's support for the on-trade. He said: “I believe it’s a good decision to keep hospitality free of restrictions at this present time, the industry has adapted well to previous restrictions and majority (including ourselves) still have the majority of systems and infrastructure in place. Coupled with little evidence to support that hospitality has been a catalyst to the spread of the virus (with retail and transport sitting far higher) again, I support the Government’s position.”