UkHospitality: Pings and passports

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, warns that significant obstacles still remain, even post ‘freedom day’...

‘Freedom day’ has certainly not been the triumphant or celebratory moment that I think either the government or the country envisioned when the roadmap out of restrictions was announced earlier this year. While the removal and easing of pandemic restrictions will be welcomed by the contract catering industry, there is clearly still some way to go, and significant hurdles need to be cleared, before we can experience anything like ‘freedom’.

Some big challenges remain, the most significant of which is that coronavirus is not going anywhere soon. There’s also the ‘pingdemic’ caused by difficulties with the NHS Covid-19 app – something which is exacerbating existing staff shortages – and the looming threat of Covid vaccine passports being an entry requirement at ‘large’ events. And, of course, we are still waiting for the government to issue a ‘back to work’ message with any real enthusiasm or clarity.

The aforementioned pingdemic is already causing havoc for the wider hospitality sector, with the super-sensitive NHS Covid-19 app alerting hundreds of thousands of uninfected people, causing up to a fifth of sector workers to isolate. This leaves many businesses on a staffing knife edge, as they reduce their operating hours or close completely, thus derailing any chance of recovery. While the government has granted exemptions for contract catering workers in hospitals and prisons, much of the foodservice workforce is still vulnerable to being pinged.

The pingdemic is also adding to what is rapidly becoming a staff shortage crisis in hospitality, with thousands having already left the sector fearing they have no future in an industry ravaged by the pandemic. Some prospective recruits are also shunning it, worried about job security. Our joint research of 350 businesses that are operating across tens of thousands of venues found that 100% currently have vacancies, while a third are experiencing managerial role gaps. Vacancy levels are running at 10% across the sector, implying a shortage of more than 200,000 workers.

The hammer blow, though, I have left until last: nightclubs and large-scale events, closed for 16-months, were stunned to learn on 19th July that, from September, their customers will be required to show Covid vaccine passports before they can enter. It was concerning news for the contract caterers, many of whom operate at large events and venues that are affected by this move. Not only will having to have such a passport put off many would-be attendees, but it could spark flashpoints between staff and guests, never mind the huge issues raised concerning equalities legislation.

Freedom day, then, has proven to be something of a false dawn. The easing of all legal restrictions in England should have been a pivotal moment for contract catering businesses desperate to lose the fetters, to be able to kick-on, trade without restrictions, rebuild, and begin to pay-off their pandemic-accrued debts.

The challenges will continue as the sector and society learns to live with this virus, However, rest assured that UKHospitality will continue to bang the drum and fight our corner to ensure that we remain on the path to recovery.

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