Congratulations, Downing Street! The Cabinet has achieved the impossible and unified the nation.
Whatever our politics, wherever we live in Britain, we all think they’re idiots.
As a diner in one of my restaurants said yesterday: ‘Frankly, at this point, I would feel safer if the coronavirus held a press conference telling us how it’s going to protect us from the Government.’
Congratulations, Downing Street! The Cabinet has achieved the impossible and unified the nation. Whatever our politics, wherever we live in Britain, we all think they’re idiots
I am beside myself with frustration at the latest measure: imposing a 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry.
Pubs and restaurants that have been helping to keep people safe with stringent hygiene and social distancing measures must eject everyone on to the streets at the stroke of 10pm.
Last Friday and Saturday, soon after 10pm, I walked through Soho in Central London and the area was like an illegal rave, with thousands of people mingling noisily.
It was mayhem. Many were simply partying in the street.
Others were trying to get away, cramming cheek-by-jowl into Ubers and black cabs, or milling around, waiting for the Tube and buses to be less jammed.
It would be ridiculously naive to suppose they were all going home to bed.
Across London, people were heading to illegal house parties, where there would be no precautions against the spread of Covid-19.
For the Government to shut us down at 10pm is counter-productive and destructive (pictured scientific advisors Sir Chris Whitty (left) and Sir Patrick Vallance (right))
By invoking powers that most of us did not know were legal and imposing this ludicrous curfew, the Government is herding countless drinkers and diners away from safe environments.
Frankly, it turned my stomach to see pictures last week of council-funded ‘inspectors’ wearing high-visibility jackets, patrolling Soho and peering into letterboxes to check nobody inside was having fun after the curfew.
No one is better equipped for keeping customers safe than the hospitality industry.
We have the staff, the infrastructure and the motivation — it’s vitally important to us that we enable people to meet on our premises while shielding them from the risk of catching the coronavirus.
The most reliable figures I’ve seen suggest that a mere 3 per cent or 4 per cent of Covid-19 infections occur across pubs, restaurants and even hotels.
That’s far less than the transmission rate on public transport, for instance, or practically anywhere else.
After 45 years in the restaurant business I know that as long as they are with us, they are in almost no danger.
Our kitchens — at restaurants including The Wolseley, The Delaunay and Brasserie Zedel — are proven to be safer than the average domestic kitchen.
In the dining areas, waiting staff are scrupulous about ensuring patrons are masked when they are not at their tables, and that customers are well-separated.
They take their responsibility very seriously because they know their jobs depend on it.
There is no need for Covid marshals in a restaurant. Every waiter has to be vigilant.
To shut us down at 10pm is counter-productive and destructive. Famously, many restaurants survive on very tight margins.
You might think closing at 10pm rather than 11pm would make little difference: it’s only an hour, after all.
But in many cases, that means that a ‘second sitting’ is impossible — and with it goes any chance of turning a profit.
It really does feel as if a specially commissioned think tank has been assembled to find ways of bringing Britain’s restaurant industry to its knees.
The threat of draconian fines for people caught disobeying rules that no one (not even the Prime Minister) can explain, the flip-flopping policies (and, in London, the seven-day congestion charge) all combine to threaten with an extinction a sector that employs three million hardworking people across the UK.
Boris Johnson’s mixed messages are beyond parody. ‘Go to work / Don’t go to work. Eat out to help out / Drink up and go home.’
All this conspires to make people feel that restaurant dining simply isn’t worth the trouble.
We don’t know what we’re allowed to do and so, being a law-abiding nation, we end up doing nothing.
All over Britain, cafes and restaurants, the independents as well as the big chains, are being wrecked.
My establishments cater to a wide demographic, but no one is immune to the effects of the disaster.
Mercifully, many of us are supported by loyal customers who help us keep our heads above water.
The atmosphere in my restaurants has actually been quite electric, buzzing with the dogged determination of our regulars to keep enjoying themselves in spite of confused and counterproductive government edicts.
But thousands of places have been unable to open again. They’ve gone under, and I’m afraid more will follow.
That is a tragedy for the customers to whom favourite restaurants are very special: one diner described it to me as ‘a kind of bereavement’.
When people treat themselves to a meal out, they are not only buying food.
They want to enjoy a special atmosphere with friendly, welcoming staff who recognise them and make them feel valued. Every restaurant is a sort of club for its regulars.
Even if some of the shuttered businesses might one day reopen, that ambience will be gone.
Different staff will be hired, in many cases, because the old ones have been forced to seek work elsewhere.
An atmosphere that took years to be lovingly built up is snuffed out.
For me, that is heart-breaking. My staff are like my family. I’ve known them for many years and their contribution has been invaluable.
We’ve been desperate to avoid redundancies, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme was cruel to restaurant workers as it failed to take into account tips and service charges.
As a result, many of my staff were reduced to about 40 per cent of their earnings, instead of 80 per cent.
I know staff who are facing eviction for non-payment of rent and others who have racked up dangerous levels of debt.
We are doing everything we can to support them, but the only realistic way to help is to get them back to work.
That’s why I’ve taken the huge gamble of reopening our restaurants (the three I have already mentioned, plus Colbert, Soutine and Fischer’s). This isn’t business as usual. It’s about people’s livelihoods.
All this sacrifice might feel more worthwhile if I had any confidence in the medical science behind the curfew.
Instead, I have yet to meet a person in the medical profession who believes the Government is doing the right thing.
One of the pleasures in owning restaurants is the opportunity it provides to meet a range of people one might otherwise never talk to.
In recent days I have chatted to the director of a hospital trust, an epidemiologist and several doctors.
Like me, they fear this policy is deeply misguided and will cause further economic misery.
Worse even than the curfew is the panic that has turned cities into ghost towns. This mindless over-reaction is destroying the fabric of the country.
Parts of my industry will be able to withstand the curfew, at least in the short term.
But millions of jobs in all industries will be lost, undermining the British economy, if the emptying of our cities continues.
Curfews and lockdowns cannot kill Covid-19. Sadly, the virus will just flare up again.
But these insane policies can kill countless individual businesses — and with them our whole way of life.