Fears over staff shortages as Covid pings threaten hospitality trade

"You just can't get the staff these days."

James Hitchin from The Alb in Shrewsbury
James Hitchin from The Alb in Shrewsbury

That is the worry of pub and restaurant bosses in Shropshire, who are living in fear over who will be left to pour pints and cook meals as Covid test and trace pings threaten to decimate their workforce.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of people interested in working in the sector, and it has led bosses to insist that maybe it is too soon to lift restrictions on Freedom Day on Monday.

About 2,000 pubs that were not able to open previously are expected to resume trading, but UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls has warned that already one in five employees in the hospitality industry is self-isolating and the problem is only likely to get worse.

Ashley's Bar in Shrewsbury is one of a number that has had to close due to staff being pinged to self-isolate. A statement said: "It is with regret that Ashleys Bar is closed due to Covid-19.

"If you used the NHS Track & Trace App to check in at the bar over the weekend of Friday, July 9 to Sunday, July 11, you may now be contacted.

"We will reopen on Thursday, July 22 at 4pm. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause."

James Hopkins from The Brooklands

Elsewhere, James Hopkins, from The Brooklands in Shrewsbury, said that recruiting staff is so difficult at the moment and if one of his reliable team were to be pinged it would be a cause for serious concern. When his son's class at school were told to self-isolate, James moved out of the family home and into a hotel as a precaution so he could keep going to work.

He added: "I've been fine with it so far, but if one of my staff pings, it will make things really difficult. We're short-staffed as it is because of holidays.

"I've heard that a lot of places are struggling. For the little pubs it's frightening.

"The biggest problem is getting staff. You can't employ people. There's loads of jobs going but nobody wants them. You can't get chefs for love nor money.

"Before you would put a job advert up and you'd be inundated with replies. I put an advert up for a chef in May and didn't receive a single application."

James Hitchin, from The Alb in Shrewsbury, believes the test and trace app doesn't take how venues implement Covid safety into consideration.

"I think the problem is the track and trace system doesn't take into account whether an environment is Covid-safe. It pings even if you and the other person are separated by a double-glazed window.

"It's alright for a bar to close, but what about supermarkets or the NHS? They can't just shut.

"And the thing is, if you had six bars in town that were pinged and had to close on a Saturday, that's six venues of five or six hundred people. Where are all those people going to go? They're just going to cram them into other venues and create more risk."

Mark Lewis, director at Hadley Park House Hotel in Telford, said: "While we welcome the lifting of restrictions, it is a double-edged sword as the new Delta variant appears to be surging.

"With the lifting of restrictions there is a big risk that some people will just let go. This places a greater risk to our staff of being pinged and forced to isolate or worse being confirmed positive.

"This could have a devastating impact on small businesses in our sector who are forced to close and result in lost business at a time when we need it most to survive. We are operating on tightrope. We will certainly be recommending continued vigilance. Mask wearing and other controls will be continued because we just don’t know what is coming through the front door.

"Without any shadow of doubt this is the most challenging time in my life having been in the hospitality industry for over 40 years."

Lisa Snape, sales and marketing manager for Best Western Valley Hotel in Ironbridge, said: "We are thrilled that Freedom Day is fast approaching as we believe it will make a big difference to the hospitality industry.

"We will continue with some of our Covid safety measures to ensure we are offering a safe place for our guests to visit."

UK Hospitality has called for businesses to be allowed to devise their own policies on coronavirus and the British Beer and Pub Association has called for more clarity on how members can operate.

A poll from insurance provider Simply Business reveals the mixed feelings the Freedom Day milestone has created for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Over half of those polled believe social distancing restrictions are being lifted too soon. Nearly a third said they will retain social distancing and reduced capacity within their businesses.

Also 29 per cent think there should be clearer guidelines provided to help small businesses reopen safely.

A previous study by the firm showed that Covid-19 will cost SMEs an estimated £126.6 billion in total.

On the staffing situation, The Confederation of British Industry's chief policy director Matthew Fell said: "Firms are currently facing a perfect storm of staff shortages worsened by rising levels of self-isolation."

He warned: “While four in 10 firms are stepping up to the plate and boosting investment in skills already, there is still a long way to go to reach the levels of investment needed to re-skill the nation."

Employers that reject staff requests to work from home without sufficient grounds could be found guilty of indirect discrimination, and companies with outdated health and safety policies could be in breach of their duties to protect staff, should they get sick.

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