It’s like one of those action films where the hero escapes certain death at the hands of his captors, only to fall into a mantrap inches from safety. Many small businesses, which managed to make it through the lockdowns of the last 16 months, now face another threat to their livelihoods – having to close again.
This time, it is a result of staff having to self-isolate for ten days due to testing positive for Covid, being contacted by NHS Test and Trace, or simply being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app asking them to isolate.
With many businesses having taken out loans just to stay afloat through the pandemic and desperate to generate regular income, losing key staff is a devastating blow.
Shut again: Hairspray, starring Michael Ball (pictured), was forced to close for ten days just two weeks after opening because a member of the production team tested positive for Covid
Just days ago, the musical Hairspray, playing at the London Coliseum in the West End and starring Michael Ball, was forced to close for ten days just two weeks after opening because a member of the production team tested positive for Covid. Countrywide, hotels, pubs, bars and restaurants are having to shut as thousands of employees are forced to self-isolate.
Helen Heraty owns Grays Court, an award-winning 12-bedroom boutique hotel in the centre of York. Out of her 27 staff, six are currently isolating, all having been pinged by the NHS app. They have all tested negative for Covid. The temporary loss of so many workers has forced her to close the hotel’s highly-regarded Bow Room restaurant and send other staff home.
‘We’re running on a skeleton crew and it’s so difficult,’ says Helen. ‘We’re losing thousands of pounds as the restaurant is shut. People have been cancelling their hotel bookings, either because they wanted to dine at the restaurant or because they think we have Covid, even though all our staff have tested negative.’
She adds: ‘I’m so angry and frustrated. There’s no financial help for people who have been told to isolate and I can’t afford to keep paying them if they’re not able to work and there’s no money coming in.
‘I know there’s no legal requirement to self-isolate if you are pinged by the app unless you are contacted by Test and Trace. But I’m not going to make that decision for my employees. As a business, we barely survived the lockdowns, we were down to our last pennies, and yet our custom is being stripped away.
‘This could keep going on for the next six weeks,’ she warns, ‘until the requirement for double jabbed people to self-isolate after being close to someone with Covid-19 stops.’
Megan Adams runs Re:Store in Hackney, East London, a zero waste and zero packaging shop she set up two and a half years ago. It sells essentials such as rice, oats, oils, cereal and household cleaning products from bulk containers so people can refill their own storage units – and products such as toothpaste tablets which negate the need for plastic tubes.
When Covid first hit, Megan moved her business on to ‘click and collect’ – and then reopened in a Covid-secure way. ‘The shop was doing really well as people were appreciating local shops more,’ she says, ‘but then last month I was pinged by the NHS app, so I had to go into isolation. As it’s pretty much just me and my assistant manager, I had to pay casual staff to cover for me while closing the shop part of the time. So it cost quite a bit of money.’
After isolating, Megan had been back at work for just a few days when her assistant manager tested positive for coronavirus, so he was off work. She then got pinged again and last week tested positive for Covid – though a subsequent test showed up as negative.
‘I will have been off work for almost a month in all,’ she says. ‘I understand the need to do so after my own testing experience, but it was frustrating after isolating for ten days beforehand. It’s happening so much and it’s really tough for everyone, especially small businesses like mine.’
Becky and David Salisbury have run the widely loved, food-led pub The Alford Arms near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire for the past 22 years. A few weeks ago, a staff member tested positive and so they took the decision to close for ten days, meaning yet more days were lost in a year which has seen them, like the rest of the industry, shut for months at a time.
‘What’s been happening in the hospitality industry is so sad,’ says Becky. ‘Like everyone else, we’ve spent so much time and money setting up all the proper precautions and making our pub as Covid-secure as possible.
‘But the threat of losing staff as a result of being pinged by the NHS app or testing positive is adding another layer of uncertainty to our fragile business. We can’t recoup any of the lost revenue and we don’t know if or when another member of staff will be pinged.’ In spite of the rollercoaster ride, Becky is remaining strong. ‘It’s frustrating, but at least we’re not in the theatre or events industries which are having an even tougher time,’ she says. ‘And we were lucky that we didn’t have any business debt when the pandemic hit.’
The industry is waiting with bated breath for August 19 when the need to self-isolate after being pinged by the NHS looks set to be scrapped. But it won’t stop several million people being asked to self-isolate before then.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade association UKHospitality, says: ‘Relaxing the self-isolation rules for fully vaccinated people from the middle of next month fails to acknowledge the carnage the current system is causing hospitality and the economy.
‘It also discriminates against a huge proportion of our workforce who have yet to receive their two jabs.’
She adds: ‘With Covid cases predicted to continue to rise, this means that the hospitality industry’s recovery after months of lockdown will be harmed. Operators will be forced into reducing their operating hours or closing venues completely.’
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