Well, after going through a cold, dark winter lockdown, it’s nice to be able to look forward to more positive times later in the year.
And Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday of a roadmap back towards normality has certainly provided a spring in the step to many in the catering equipment industry, with some reporting an immediate uplift in enquiries.
But when we look at what the plans actually mean, I think we need to temper any excitement somewhat. The cautious timetable for the hospitality industry to reopen is 12 April for outdoor dining, 17 May for indoors and 21 June as a slated hopeful full relaxation of social distancing.
What we need to really absorb though is the phrase ‘at the earliest’. These dates represent only the best case scenario, they are not set in stone. Let us not forget that coronavirus infections and hospitalisations are currently around the amount of the first wave’s peak – remember how awful that felt then? There is a long way to go before we can describe our day-to-day lives as normal, and there are many factors at play that could knock the tenuous plan off-course.
The UK is still recording daily infections of five figures, and the more that Covid spreads, the greater the opportunities for vaccine-resistant mutations to appear. If any of them become the dominant strain, then the incredible progress the NHS has made with the jabs so far will become null and void. It really is a race between the virus and the vaccine, and we all have to hope that the vaccine will win, but it is not guaranteed.
Furthermore, the 5-week gap between each of the four steps of the government’s relaxation plan will depend on stringent conditions being met in each case, which again, are not guaranteed.
But let’s just say for argument’s sake that this initial timetable ends up being the one we do follow. Even then, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the foodservice industry. According to UKHospitality, only 40% of hospitality businesses have outside space, so an April reopening wouldn’t apply to 60% of the industry. And even the May indoor dining date would still factor in many social restrictions such as the rule of six and table service. So the curve towards full reopening would actually be pretty slow up until 21 June, or whenever the step 4 date ends up being. The government still needs to provide financial support to operators and their whole supply chain up until that point to ensure the industry’s survival.
And if the government’s target is to have every adult in the country vaccinated by the end of July, add a month to that for higher levels of immunity to kick in, there’s still a couple of months of crossover during which unvaccinated people could be happily out and about, sitting cheek by jowl with the vaccinated cohort. Will that be enough to trigger a third wave? Who knows, but forgive me if I remain sceptical that a government which has contributed to over 100,000 Covid deaths can be trusted to competently reopen the country.
Nevertheless, the roadmap has been embraced by industry associations including the FEA. Chief executive Keith Warren commented: “We welcome the roadmap – it gives a reasonably concrete schedule against which the supply chain can start planning. Foodservice operators now need to talk to suppliers about the things they might require in order to adapt their processes and systems – for example, if they are changing their menu or operation in order to offer a takeaway or delivery service. Automation of processes will be a key driver for efficiency.”
However, he cautioned: “Operators will also have to adapt to big changes in the supply chain. There could be major challenges here – for example, the supply chain has slimmed down over the past year, and there will be manufacturing and supply issues, as a result of both the pandemic and Brexit.”
So it could mean boom time for equipment orders at a time when there is short supply. But if we adopt a motto of ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’ then we can collectively remain positive but clear eyed as to the industry’s prospects for 2021.
Personally, we will be doing the same for our Catering Insight Awards. We very much hope to welcome the cream of the UK catering equipment channel back to celebrate triumphing in these turbulent times, in our usual format in November. I cannot wait to see everyone face to face for a grand ceremony and to party the night away with industry friends. Hopefully November is more than enough time for everything to return to normal, even if there are delays in the reopening timetable. It will definitely be something that keeps me going throughout the year, and I hope you all can find a similar goal to enable you to stay upbeat too. See you in the second half of the year – fingers crossed!