Michael Stewart Belfast Chamber President reflects on hospitality sector restrictions

When I set out in the hospitality business almost 35 years ago, Belfast was a very, very different place. We were in the midst of the Troubles. Pubs, including Bob Cratchits which I managed, were the targets of terrorism.  Belfast had some great venues, but it sometimes didn’t feel like a safe place for a night out.

As we all know, things started to change for the better.  But Belfast didn’t become the bustling, lively, energetic city we all know and love and that has been recognised by Lonely Planet as a must visit destination by accident.  It took years and years and years of effort and equal amounts of entrepreneurism. I remember when Nick Price opened his restaurant on what was then a rundown Hill Street and Willie Jack with The Duke of York on Commercial Court.  Tumbleweed was the main thing blowing through those streets back then. Their courage helped kick start the Cathedral Quarter that has become the beating heart of Belfast’s night-time economy. Pioneers like Bill Wolsey and Jas Money took chances on old buildings and transformed them into a fabulous hotels and bars that would grace any city in the world.

Our industry has been through tough times. We’ve endured downturns caused by dot com bubbles bursting and global financial crashes.  We’ve weathered the uncertainty created by Brexit and political instability at Stormont.  Yet none of those crises made me fear for the future of Belfast’s hospitality sector like the coronavirus pandemic has done thus far.

When restrictions were imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 back in March, the hospitality industry stepped forward and played its part, as it always has.  Businesses closed without complaint, not knowing what it would mean for them in the long term.  As those restrictions began to be lifted, our pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels invested thousands of pounds in making their premises safe for staff and customers. Slowly but surely, it felt like a corner was being turned with traditional non-food pubs also being able to reopen their doors at long last after 6 months of forced closure.

But all of a sudden, that spark of optimism is virtually extinguished.  The upsurge in the virus is worrying and action is needed, but my view has always been that restrictions should relate to risk and that government has a difficult but necessary responsibility to consider the impact of its actions on both lives and livelihoods.  Recent decisions by government have, I believe, failed to strike the right balance with our hospitality and live music venues, in particular, singled out for special sanctions.

Rules such as no more than 6 people at a table from a maximum of 2 households are already causing consternation amongst our city’s publicans and restauranteurs and are resulting in cancellations and a drop in forward bookings, especially worrying with Christmas a few months away.  Customers and operators alike are confused and concerned.  A curfew will also inhibit trade and the experience from cities like London and Liverpool this past weekend shows us that by closing venues at the same time this is causing huge crowds of people to congregate on the streets at the same time on exiting the venues – surely something government wants to avoid. This curfew has actually created the problem that the government wanted to avoid, a problem that was and is under control in many of our hospitality venues here in Northern Ireland. Our venues in fact have the strictest procedures for combating COVID-19 in the whole of the UK and across Ireland.  It may not be a lockdown in name, but for me it feels like these restrictions are deliberately designed to depress custom.

Not only are these new restrictions challenging to comprehend, incredibly difficult to follow and, often at times, almost impossible to enforce, they also don’t seem to match what we have been told by those in authority. The hospitality sector’s efforts to make venues COVID secure have been singled out for praise by the likes of the Chief Medical Officer. We are told that domestic settings and house parties rather than pubs and restaurants are where transmission is worst.  And the First Minister has said that “the villain is not business”.  So, why are hospitality businesses facing such draconian restrictions that are, arguably, disproportionate to the danger they pose? We are told that the Executive that decisions are guided, as they should be, by the evidence. What is the evidence relating to hospitality venues and can we see it please?

Facing such uncertainty, we might expect government to offer the sector some additional help.  Don’t get me wrong, initiatives like ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and the VAT reduction along with the rates holiday have been much appreciated, but we are now facing into what feels like an exceptionally difficult period and there is no sign of assistance coming.  Earlier in this crisis, Michelin starred chef Michael Deane said that he was worried that the COVID-19 crisis could close half of Belfast’s restaurants.  I am beginning to fear that not only was Michael justified in his concerns, but that he actually he may have even underestimated the impact.

This isn’t a sector we can simply sacrifice.  Aside from employing thousands of people in Belfast and across the region, it is key to the success of our tourism industry which will, in time, bounce back, and it is an integral part of the economic ecosystem of our city.  As we’ve seen all too evidently, hospitality needs the trade that workers in banks and tech firms bring, but those businesses also need a good mix of pubs, cafes, bars and restaurants to attract and retain the talent they need.

If our Executive wants to have a hospitality sector at the end of this current crisis that is able to contribute to our economy as it has and it can again, then they must revisit these restrictions urgently and ensure that in trying to conquer the coronavirus, it doesn’t kill off our hospitality industry.