Inside track: beware post-lockdown ‘elephant traps', says Robin Hutson

21 April 2020 by

We're all looking forward to a return to normality, but Robin Hutson questions if the end of lockdown will merely bring new troubles.

It's quite unthinkable just how the world has changed in a month. The sheer scale of this pandemic – the global lockdown, the human tragedy, the economic impact – is difficult to instantly comprehend. It's just all so very sad.

But it's quite incredible really, how we have speedily adapted to running our businesses virtually. Working from home is the new norm, communicating with comparative ease – who would have thought it? Personally, as someone who was a complete novice in the art of videoconferencing, I am now just about capable of Zooming, Business Skyping and being a fully fledged Teams and Houseparty participant. And I'm making a mental note to use it in the future, instead of driving around like a madman trying to be in too many places at once.

However, the really big questions remain. How do we get ourselves out of this lockdown situation? What do the next six months look like? And should hotels and restaurants consider writing off 2020 completely?

While pondering these issues, we continue to grapple with the latest government support information. Only last week the government thought it was being helpful by announcing the extension of the furlough cut-off date from 28 February to 19 March. Sadly, the small print has caught many of us out on this one. It actually helps relatively few due to RTI payroll activation, which for monthly salaried staff so often takes place at the end of the month.

How do we get ourselves out of this lockdown situation? What do the next six months look like? And should hotels and restaurants consider writing off 2020 completely?

Furthermore, we still have no help for new staff, who have been offered jobs but not yet started, many of whom have been left in limbo between employers.

But for me it's the transition back from this current dormant mode into something close to normal operations that's my overriding concern.

For many businesses and organisations, it is possible to imagine how they might gradually return to a phased normality.

With an element of social distancing and some guidelines laid down, it's easy to see how schools, museums, construction sites, factories, shops and call centres might operate. But for those of us in hospitality, where so much of our activity takes place in socially crowded or close proximity environments, the face-to-face between staff and guests is unavoidable.

Social distancing for our businesses is really quite tricky. Many establishments only hit the break-even point when they are at around 70% occupancy, so to limit occupant density of bars and restaurants for any length of time could be economically very challenging indeed.

The ‘elephant trap' in all of this is if the government allows the opening of hospitality businesses – at the same time stopping the furlough support – yet imposes distancing or anti-density measures. It could be the worst of all scenarios.

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