Hospitality sector raises a cautious toast as UK pubgoers return

Pubgoers are flocking back to their locals, according to figures that drew a cautious toast from the industry but also prompted warnings of fresh turmoil if the government again singles out hospitality as a winter Covid-19 risk. Read more: Hospitality sector raises a cautious toast as UK pubgoers return

Hospitality sector raises a cautious toast as UK pubgoers return

Pubgoers are flocking back to their locals, according to figures that drew a cautious toast from the industry but also prompted warnings of fresh turmoil if the government again singles out hospitality as a winter Covid-19 risk.

Financial figures released by three large chains on Thursday indicated that conditions were improving for the UK’s 47,000 pubs, which have been badly bruised by successive lockdowns and trading restrictions.

Mitchells & Butlers, one of the UK’s biggest pub groups with 1,784 venues, said sales have been at 97% of pre-Covid levels since the resumption of full indoor service in most of the UK on 17 May and have even overtaken 2019 in the eight weeks to 18 September.

Fuller, Smith & Turner, which runs 209 pubs and rents out 175 more, reported recent trading at 86% of pre-pandemic levels but expects that to increase with the gradual return of workers to offices in London, home to 44% of its pubs.

City Pub Group, which has 50 pubs in market towns and cities nationwide, said sales had been above 90% of normal levels, with the return to work likely to drive that number higher.

The most recent industry-wide figures from the trade body the British Beer & Pub Association show that sales in the week ending 5 September were at 95% of 2019.

Despite signs that pub culture is returning to full swing, publicans and leading industry figures warned that the recent improvement was “fragile”, with immediate challenges such as a shortage of both HGV drivers and carbon dioxide – used in fizzy drinks and beer – hampering recovery.

They added that the revival could be snuffed out if a fresh wave of winter Covid-19 cases leads to the restoration of tight restrictions or even closure orders.

Mitchells & Butlers chief executive Phil Urban said the company has seen the strongest sales in pubs that serve food. “It’s a hangover from when we were in more restricted trading times,” he said.

“If you’re sitting having a meal you have your own space, you’re not crammed in with strangers, so customers are adopting that. And when you’ve been forced to not see friends and family for so long, people want to sit down have a meal and have a proper evening out.”

But he said drinkers’ continuing wariness of standing-room-only venues was crimping drinks sales, adding that any government rhetoric targeting hospitality could trigger the return of financial hardship for the sector.

“[Last year] the prime minister was saying ‘Don’t go to pubs’, even though there has never been evidence that pubs and hospitality are more of a cause than anything else,” he said.

“That seed has been planted. There was enough noise to make people a bit nervous about it and that manifests itself in the numbers.”

He highlighted the nationwide lorry driver shortage as a more immediate concern, warning: “You can’t plan for it.”

The Rose Inn, in Norwich, has benefited from the surge in trade after restrictions were eased in May, as well as the return of Premier League football, because it is close to Norwich FC’s Carrow Road ground.

But the publican Dawn Hopkins said her premises was still closed three days a week and trade was much harder to predict, making staffing and stock supply plans more difficult.

“Everyone I talk to says the same, we’ll have a Wednesday that will be absolutely mad and then a Friday that’s quiet,” she said. “There have been changes in how people are working, fewer people meeting up after work and so on. There’s not so much routine.”

The trade body UK Hospitality welcomed signs that pub takings are up but pointed to a litany of lingering concerns, including rising costs putting pressure on profit margins and continuing labour shortages.

The chief executive also highlighted supply chain issues including soaring gas prices and the CO2 shortage.

“Fragile consumer confidence is easily knocked by negative numbers of talk of a plan B,” Kate Nicholls said.

Plan B refers to the possible use of measures such as vaccine passports to enter hospitality venues, as well as the more widespread return of mandatory masks and working from home.

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Hospitality sector raises a cautious toast as UK pubgoers return

Source : Business Matters More   

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UK cabinet split over solution to lorry driver shortage

A cabinet split is hampering the government’s efforts to deal with the nationwide shortage of lorry drivers that threatens fuel supplies at some petrol stations and caused some panic-buying of fuel on Friday. Read more: UK cabinet split over solution to lorry driver shortage

UK cabinet split over solution to lorry driver shortage

A cabinet split is hampering the government’s efforts to deal with the nationwide shortage of lorry drivers that threatens fuel supplies at some petrol stations and caused some panic-buying of fuel on Friday.

Ministers are divided about the best way to solve the shortage of truck drivers, with a meeting on Friday afternoon expected to seek a compromise over whether to recruit more drivers from abroad.

On Friday Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said he would move “heaven and earth” to solve the problem, and kept on the table the idea of adding truck drivers to the “shortage occupation list”, which would let foreign drivers enter the country more easily.

But multiple sources said Shapps and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary were sceptical about the idea and another source said the Home Office, led by Priti Patel, was also unconvinced.

The idea is being pushed, however, by the environment secretary, George Eustice, and by the Cabinet Office, led by Steve Barclay, as a way to boost the availability of drivers to deliver petrol to forecourts.

One potential compromise due to be discussed on Friday is a special short-term visa scheme for truck drivers that could tackle with the immediate crisis.

The Home Office will ultimately make the decision over whether to relax restrictions for drivers, with the government recognising that something has to be done about the shortage to avoid scenes of chaos at petrol stations.

Kwarteng is understood to believe that oil companies should be paying their drivers more and offering better working conditions, rather than the UK seeking to recruit from abroad.

One Whitehall source said those cabinet ministers opposed to the shortage occupation list solution would prefer to see a plan to tempt back to the sector some of the 600,000 people with heavy goods licences not currently employed as drivers.

Another senior government source said some ministers appeared to be keen at all costs to avoid the perception that Brexit was to blame for the shortage, accounting for its reluctance to relax immigration rules.

Earlier on Friday, Shapps said he would consider all options, including the possibility of issuing short-term skilled worker visas to tap mainland Europe’s pool of potential HGV drivers. He said motorists should not panic as the problem would be “smoothed out relatively quickly”.

“I’ll look at everything,” he told Sky News. “I wouldn’t rule anything out. We will move heaven and earth to do whatever it takes to make sure shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.”

Asked about the Petrol Retailers Association warning that drivers should keep a quarter of a tank of fuel in their car in case forecourts ran out, Shapps downplayed the issue and said motorists should “carry on as normal” and not panic-buy.

“I’m not saying there is no issue,” he said. “There has been an issue. Although there are stresses and strains in the system, by and large it has not impacted on people’s everyday life when it comes to filling up with petrol. There is not a shortage of fuel at the refineries.”

Shapps blamed Covid, which he said delayed 40,000 drivers taking their HGV driving tests, but added that the government had changed the law to ease the “bottleneck”. More than twice as many driver tests were now available than pre-pandemic, he said.

Shapps said the driver shortage was not a new problem and that the UK had relied over a long period of time on “importing cheap European, often eastern European, labour undercutting the domestic market”. He added: “We need to make this a more attractive industry”, welcoming salary and wage increases for HGV drivers.

Asked about the role of Brexit in the driver crisis, he said EU countries such as Poland and Germany had “very large and even larger” shortages. “I’ve seen people point to Brexit as the culprit here; in fact, they are wrong,” he said. “Because of Brexit, I’ve been able to change the law and alter the way our driving tests are taken in a way I could not have done if we were still part of the EU. Brexit has actually provided part of the solution.”

Read more:
UK cabinet split over solution to lorry driver shortage

Source : Business Matters More   

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