Hospitality industry warns of looming crisis as staff forced to isolate

The hospitality industry is warning of a looming crisis sparked by the surge in Covid infections, with various businesses having to close as entire teams of workers are sent home to isolate after receiving notifications from the NHS app.

Restaurants, pubs and bars are calling on ministers to urgently approve a “test and release” scheme so that they can continue to stay open and serve customers. The latest daily tally of infections topped 26,000 on Wednesday, and increasing numbers of businesses are coming under pressure because staff have to stay at home for 10 days if one tests positive for Covid-19.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the trade body had been in talks with the government for two weeks about changing the rules and that the situation now needed urgent attention.

“Being contacted by lots of businesses reporting blanket notifications of entire teams, meaning no option but to fully close for 10 days with no revenue,” Nicholls said in a Twitter post on Wednesday. “We urgently need a test-to-release-and-test-to-remain approach to allow hospitality to continue operating.”

Alex Reilly, the chairman of bar and restaurant group Loungers, which has more than 140 outlets around the UK, tweeted on Tuesday that many businesses would in effect be forced into a new lockdown unless the rules were changed.

“Asking whole teams of people who don’t have Covid to isolate for 10 days will very quickly result in a lockdown of hospitality in all but name. We can’t go on like this – urgent action is required,” he wrote.

Under the current rules, even those who do not test positive must remain in quarantine for the full period.

High-profile restaurants that have reported being forced to close include Kala in central Manchester, which had to shut twice temporarily in a short period, and Rochelle Canteen in east London. St Austell Brewery said it had to temporarily or partly shut five of its 40 managed sites in the west country because staff had to self-isolate.

The issue with test and trace is adding to worker shortages caused by Brexit as many EU nationals, who previously made up a significant proportion of the hospitality workforce, have gone home and been unable to return for work.

St Austell Brewery said: “We are faced with a labour crisis.” The trend for people to go on holiday in Devon and Cornwall had led to growing demand, it said, but “we simply cannot find enough people to meet that demand. This has led to us having to make difficult operational decisions, including reducing our opening hours and food service times. In some cases, where large numbers of our teams have been alerted by the test and trace app, we’ve been forced to close pubs”.

The British Beer & Pubs Association said many of its members were reducing opening times or closing altogether because of the issue, which it had raised with the government this week.

Businesses have expressed frustration at the NHS app, which automatically notifies people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

Nicholls said: “We have called for urgent clarification of isolation policy to reflect the enormous success of its vaccine rollout. Following a positive case, the current NHS test and trace system issues a blanket notice to anyone registered as working at a venue, regardless of whether they were on shift at the same time, in which section of the venue they work, or their vaccination status.

“This forces already struggling hospitality businesses to shut their doors, and can result in whole teams needing to self-isolate.”

She said a “sensible and pragmatic approach” would be to extend the “test to remain” system for vaccinated staff used in schools to hospitality.

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