Social distancing? What social distancing? The review of the 2m rule was already looking moot when people started hitting the beaches, attending underground raves and participating in protests.
This week, the rush to indulge in some revenge spending made even the idea of 1m distancing seem fanciful. The reopening of non-essential shops across UK high streets on Monday prompted near riots as all that pent-up demand was suddenly released and shoppers stormed the likes of NikeTown on Oxford Street, TK Maxx and Primark. Bicester Village, in Oxfordshire, got so crowded that more than 5,000 people signed a petition to close it until its social distancing measures were improved.
Let’s hope the spending splurge is sustained and not just a short-lived reaction to lockdown fatigue (and people don’t pick up more than the bargains they bargained for, in the form of Covid-19). But whether the bursting back to life of UK retail signals the start of economic recovery or not, it will be small comfort to the hospitality sector.
The full reopening of pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants is not expected until 4 July at the earliest and the fear is that many businesses have already passed the point of no return. With June rent quarter day looming large, Boxpark founder Roger Wade warns that the hospitality sector is “on a collision course” and faces Armageddon if landlords, tenants and government don’t work together to address the crisis. Up to 50% of businesses will not survive the lockdown if action is not taken, he says starkly.
As both landlord and tenant, Wade is acutely aware of the issues on both sides of the fence. The big sticking point remains rental payments, with operators demanding reductions of up to 100% and landlords having to deal with the resulting loss of income with no redress.
Wade wants to see landlords, tenants and government “adopt an attitude of shared pain” and for help to be offered not just to tenants but to landlords, who are too readily painted as the villains of the piece. But he is worried the warring factions are becoming more entrenched as the fight for survival trumps any instinct to concede ground.
There is also the problem of which initiative to back. As the situation has become more divisive and calls for action louder, there’s been a proliferation of proposed solutions. This week saw the launch of The High Streets Task Force, chaired by Ellandi boss and former Revo president Mark Robinson. Also in play are the furloughed space grant scheme proposed by BPF, BRC and Revo, and the code of practice being worked on by government, BPF, Revo, BRC and UKHospitality.
None seems to be the silver bullet. Prestbury’s Nick Leslau goes so far as to describe the latter as “toothless” in his column this week. “Those gaming the system, as so many will this quarter day, will not pick up a copy of the code, let alone read it,” he says derisively.
While Wade agrees the code won’t solve the issue, he is more underwhelmed by the £50m Reopening High Streets Safely Fund, which he dismisses as akin to administering a band-aid when your arm’s been chopped off. Unlike Leslau, Wade thinks the code will encourage all the parties to come to the table.
I hope he is right and Leslau is wrong, because if they do not set aside their differences and come up with a plan soon, they really could face Armageddon.