All hospitality workers want for Christmas is clarity.

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

Remember “Freedom Day”? That bizarre, heady moment in July when all legal limits on social contact were removed and we realised just how unaccustomed we had become to the basic normality and freedom that characterised our lives before March 2020?

On that historic day, myself and several colleagues ventured into central London. We swung from rocking boat-bars to heaving restaurants and, whilst we were careful to wear our masks when we felt the moment called for it, and sat mostly outside, we dove into that moment of national liberation in the way most of us Brits best know how — by enjoying the hospitality industry in its most intense form. We didn’t do that because we felt this was a great moment of liberation. We did it because we wanted to enjoy it whilst we could.

We are all, you see, hospitality workers ourselves. We knew that one way or another, when the inevitable resurgence of cases or emergence of variants came for us all in the Winter, we’d be back in the firing line for the unholy coalition of armchair epidemiologists, a government that doesn’t remotely understand how we operate, and the virus itself. So we drunk several to our joy, and several more to our future sorrow.

But somehow, what we have experienced in the last few weeks has been worse than even we could have expected. We couldn’t have foreseen a government so unwilling to learn its own lessons that it would revert to the exact same message as that of March 2020 — that you should minimise socialising, but that hospitality venues should stay open without any further support.

What faces us now is a situation more uncertain than any before; A Christmas in which we are open but face unprecedented cancellations. Tables are empty on what are supposed to be the busiest nights of the year, many without even the courtesy of a cancellation. Pre-booked live music acts perform to a crowd of almost no-one. Stock wrangled at great difficulty from the broken supply chain goes to waste. Cutbacks, where not already made, loom. At least in March 2020 we only endured four sleepless nights worrying about our jobs before the decision to shut us down, and introduce the furlough scheme, was implemented. We have now lingered for closer to a week, and are likely to now have to wait a further one (with Christmas Day and Boxing Day sat in the intervening time) before we get that kind of clarity, if indeed we get it at all.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In amongst all the raging debate about whether or not hospitality should be shuttered away once more, its easy to miss the most important point for those of us for whom this industry governs the very rhythms of every minute of our waking life; that like anybody else, both financially and personally, we just need a decision. A clear, uncompromising decision.

Most of us are sympathetic to both sides of the argument. We know that the there is no clear consensus on the risks of contracting Covid-19 in a hospitality venue, with SAGE itself having to balance constantly the findings of several conflicting studies and emphasise that “Transmission risk is a combination of environmental and behavioural factors: higher risk contacts are those that are close, prolonged, indoors, face-to-face, in poorly ventilated and/or crowded spaces, or involve “loud” activities.” Indeed, in our quite-closely-managed environments, where we are also responsible for managing disorderly behaviour because of our obligations to the Licensing Act, we feel more in control of high-risk activity here than we do whenever we step into a high-street shop. And in an age of mass-home-testing, the level of risk involved in the decision to meet with and spend a significant amount of face-to-face time with someone you do not live with in a venue is something that the customer, not the staff, has the most power to contend with.

But we also know that hospitality has a role to play in the national effort — a role which we gladly signal — encouraging app usage, discouraging (as we are already legally required to do) excessive drinking which might lead to reckless decision-making, and making sure that surfaces are sanitised with chemicals so strong it burns our hands as we use them, despite all the evidence that Covid is very rarely transmitted by surfaces.

What we simply do not want to return to is the halfway house of ridiculous, complicated and unenforceable measures we have jumped through hoops to comply with at various points in the last 18 months. My memories of this bizarre and frightening period of our lives are lined with the almost-funny, mostly-exhausting experiences of obviously fake Track and Trace details, clearly unrelated, huge singular households and uneaten substantial meals beside empty pint glasses. Worse, I myself wear the emotional scars (as do so many of us) of shouting matches over unworn masks, tables of seven (seven!) people and hours and hours of empty, anxious pubs. Workers in our quirky branch of the frontline against this virus have had to contend with serving pints under umbrellas in the hailing rain, with Eat-Out-To-Help-Out highs and Don’t-You-Dare-Go-Out lows, and with frankly more abuse than anybody who hasn’t worked in it could ever comprehend.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

A return to such a broken system of ill-thought-out rules, actively dangerous curfews and unenforceable mask requirements would simply be the last straw for thousands of us. People in this industry are at the end of their tether as it is. I watch every day as my manager, or my flatmate, or my friends, struggle to overcome strangely intense physical ailments, like vomiting bugs and serious colds, that they simply cannot shake because their central nervous systems are shot to pieces. The stress is palpable. The anxiety is a low drone through the rhythms of the day. We watch every press conference huddled around the pub’s TV waiting for some kind of resolving moment, like that in March 2020, in which we are finally given an answer. None comes.

I cannot pretend, nor can any of us, to find it easy to take a punt at the unenviable decision that the government can make in the face of surging Omicron cases. But we feel more than ever that a clear one, one way or the other, must be made. The government should be unambiguous in its decisions over our future, firm on the revival of the furlough scheme, and recognise that either way it will need to change course before March by ruling out a return to the 20% rate of VAT for our venues at any point in the near future. We need this clarity so we can sort out our own mental health, plan for the future of our businesses, and guarantee that this industry will not suffer the kind of catastrophic collapse in 2022 that would not just leave so many jobless, but diminish the very fabric of life in Britain.

There are many who would say that prioritising a decision on preserving the near-future of hospitality, and a strategy for its long-term-future, shouldn’t be the focus of this government at a time of national crisis. They might say, as many of my own friends and relatives have to me, that in the greater scope of things hospitality is a luxury of an industry, a “nice to have”. How short-sighted they are, that cannot see the families who rejoice here in births and weddings, and mourn with us at funerals. They forget the youngsters who first learn here how to balance the grind of work with the pursuit of leisure, meeting friends and lovers and experiences that will define their coming of age. They forget the elderly widows, who sit alone but who know they are noticed, and looked after, who sit here the whole day long, and have their few conversations of the day. They fundamentally misunderstand that hospitality is the last true public space left in this country at a time when isolation grows and community dwindles. We are not just business; we are a service in the truest sense of the word. It’s why so many of us who work here stay, day after gruelling day.

All we are asking for in return is a clear answer, without quirks and cop-outs, over how we might keep doing that.

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Gaetano Russo

Gaetano Russo

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Desperate graduate writing about the bigger picture behind everyday culture.