Inside track: the privileged few should not shout loudest, says Asma Khan

23 February 2021 by
Inside track: the privileged few should not shout loudest, says Asma Khan

We are without doubt in the final stage of a very long and painful pandemic. The roll-out of the vaccines has been very positive and gives us all hope that we could reopen in the near future.

A recent post by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who talked about having a conversation with Gordon Ramsay on hospitality, is a sharp reminder of who is truly at the frontline of the industry. We have heard very little from the huge number of hospitality staff who lost their jobs, who are struggling to pay rent, and those who were not furloughed and were forced to move back to their family home or leave the UK altogether.

It seems very skewed that a highly privileged and very wealthy chef was seen by the chancellor as the appropriate person to speak to about the difficulties faced by hospitality. I would have liked to see the chancellor speaking to the frontline hospitality staff, the ones who mopped the kitchen floor, cleaned the freezers and turned off the kitchen lights for three lockdowns. The managers who had to deal with the anguish and anxiety of staff, who had to communicate difficult messages if the owner or investors decided not to furlough their employees – these are the voices we need in the conversation.

The first lockdown came suddenly in some ways and the immediate announcement of government support and the furlough scheme seemed to placate hospitality. The reduction in the VAT and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme just sleepwalked us into the second lockdown, which was meant to have given us a normal Christmas and the ability to earn enough money to see us through the leaner months of January and February.

The different tiers leading to the sudden closure and effectively the cancellation of Christmas, for some just days before Christmas Eve, again left frontline staff out in the cold. Too much attention is paid to restaurateurs, high-profile chefs and the big investors in restaurants. As an industry, we need to have a similar recognition of frontline NHS staff who have had to face huge insecurity and challenges. Of course, the comparison between medical teams and service teams is not comparable, but I wanted to point out that in every discussion you hear regarding hospitality, the big pub and alcohol bosses and high-profile chefs demand to get rents cancelled, but there is very little being said and done about the people who at very short notice found themselves out of a job.

In the first lockdown, there was the terrible sight of agency hospitality workers sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square as they had no income and could not afford a roof over their heads. The situation in subsequent lockdowns may not have been so extreme, but the number of people who have left London in this current lockdown surely indicates that it became very clear to them that there was no date for when restaurants would open again.

I hope we come out of this terribly difficult year more compassionate and more willing to recognise the contribution of our frontline workers in hospitality, instead of focusing on celebrity chefs who, as Sunak pointed out, in this case, was able to get himself a programme as a gameshow host on television, something a waiter or a sous chef in hospitality will not have as an opportunity.

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