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The cost of freedom - Ed's letter

One of the many reasons why, as we chew our way through month 15, the pandemic is so very tiring, is all the flow charting we have to do. No decision is final. Everything is subject to change. It doesn’t matter how set a plan can feel, how simple, it can vanish in a puff. Or a ping.

Which is why the appeal of Freedom Day was so gripping. That’s it. No more restrictions. No going back. You say you’re meeting your friends in the pub, you’re meeting them in the pub and that’s that.

Alas it didn’t get off to the best of starts, with the prime minister having to retreat to Chequers, the 16th-century manor house set in 1,000 acres which really should be being Airbnb’d for the good of the nation, so high are room rates this domestic holiday season.

Epidemiology is not this hack’s strong point, so we’ll be side-stepping what Freedom Day means for the virus and looking instead at what it means for the sector, on a day when the final 12,000 venues which had been held back were able to open.

Other than the clubbers in Bristol who were ready at see in the dawn, the mood was muted. Quiet almost, and the reason was something which the current incumbent at Chequers could fully identify with: the ominous ping of the NHS app, informing all who hear it that they must immediately retreat from public life.

Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Greene King, said that the company had been forced to close 33 pubs, telling the BBC: “Across the industry we think it is about one in five of our team members who have been affected by this and therefore it is causing a real issue for us setting up business on a daily basis – we’re having to have shortened hours in some circumstances.”

Tantalisingly, there is a plan: in August those who have been fully vaccinated will not have to self isolate should their app go off. This is not much solace for those working in the hospitality sector, dominated as it is by youthful types, many of whom will only just have had one vaccination.

Lobbying is under way, but the government is standing firm - for what that’s worth - and won’t bring the deadline on the fully vaccinated forward or conjure any other solutions, not for hospitality, which it doesn’t see as critical. So the sector must do it itself, as it has throughout the pandemic.

Now many not feel like the time to invest - it’s not as though there are spare sacks of cash lying around - but any changes made now will also help address the lack of staff making their lack of presence felt because of Brexit.

The sector has ignored technology on the grounds that many had been burned as early adopters and that service was only something which could be delivered by human hand. Customer demand during the pandemic has meant that prior naysayers are now converts. Ordering, back of house paperwork, billing. It all cuts the size of a team - and the dullness of many of the tasks. It’s time to let the computers lend a hand, not just deliver a ping.


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