Birmingham is confused. Plunged into tier two of the government’s latest local lockdown rules, the UK’s second city today has to wade its way through another muddy puddle of convoluted guidance – despite having a lower infection rate than some cities in the tier below.
With a rate of 125.2 cases per 100,000 people in the last week (to 12 October), Birmingham argues that it shouldn’t be facing the same implications as other tier two cities such as Nottingham and Manchester, which have 602.6 and 356.0 cases respectively.
Concurrently, tier one Exeter has a rate of 213.1 cases, despite government officials claiming that the tier two threshold is set at 100 cases per 100,000 people. You can understand the confusion.
The hospitality sector continues to feel scapegoated. Newly-imposed measures restrict different households from mixing in any indoor setting, including pubs, bars and restaurants. Thanks to the rule of six and 10pm curfew, those venues were already finding it tough.
Although hotels dodge mixed household rules, travellers are stalled by such announcements that do nothing but send mixed messages over visitors’ safety.
“Room sales have fallen off the face of a cliff,” says Tom Brannigan, general manager of The Bournbrook Inn, a newly-opened pub with rooms in Stirchley, a trendy south Birmingham suburb.
“We’re a brand-new hotel and prior to this we had plenty of families staying with us to visit the nearby Cadbury World. Tier two placement will massively impact the inherently social hospitality businesses, as the idea is for people to mix. We’re very fortunate that our local residents and businesses have been supporting us through this.”
Those local businesses in Stirchley form part of an incredibly tight-knit, co-operative community of creatives, which includes Attic, a normally bustling brewery and taproom. It’s had to close its doors and adapt by delivering cans directly to customers rather than barrels to businesses.
“Lockdown completely changed the way our business worked,” says Oli Hurlow, company director. “All of our revenue streams suddenly closed, and we had to pivot very quickly to canning beers.”
And those new restrictions? “We’re having to cut production by around two thirds. Most of our tables seat six people, so we’ll struggle to fill many of our seats while the overheads remain just as high. Tier two seems to leave many businesses struggling while not qualifying for help.”
While the Stirchley community may be muddling through, it’s a completely different story a few miles away in the city centre.
With many offices still closed and inner-city tourism at an all time low, there’s a severe lack of passing trade for usually busy restaurants.
“The past two days have been the quietest since lockdown in March. It won’t be viable to open our restaurant if business stays like this.” says James Wong, managing director of Chung Ying restaurant. Chung Ying – a proud Birmingham institution – has been the beating heart of Birmingham’s Chinatown since 1981.
Having already spent more than £20,000 to make his restaurant Covid-compliant, Wong is becoming increasingly concerned over a lack of business support.
“We’ve built an outdoor dining area with two state-of-the-art infrared thermometers,” James explained. “Tables are socially distanced and separated by dividers. We’ve never allowed bookings to exceed more than six people, and we’ve turned away larger parties for the safety of our staff and customers. We’d like the government to provide a level of financial support like they have to tier three businesses.”
It’s a similar story on the outskirts of the city. At Resorts World, an entertainment complex revered for its links with Birmingham’s International Airport and train station, plus passing trade from one of the country’s most-visited concert arenas and exhibition halls, trade is dwindling.
“It’s been an incredibly upsetting few days,” says Oliver Ngo, owner of Vietnamese Street Kitchen. “During Eat Out to Help Out, we were flying. However, in early September, we saw a dramatic fall in trade, and I had to let a few members of staff go.”
“In a bid to bring back trade and protect jobs I personally extended the EOTHO scheme through to mid-October, which got us moving along again,” Ngo adds. “Many guests are now cancelling bookings as they’re not within the same household, which is understandable, but is a great loss. Every time I try to keep us all afloat the government comes out with something else and I’m back to square one. It’s heartbreaking.”
Make no bones about it: the hospitality sector is in dire straits. Just as businesses get used to new measures, they’re hampered with further restrictions that cause financial complications and shroud the industry in a cloud of confusion. And according to trade body UKHospitality, more than 500,000 jobs could be lost within the sector.
If you’re forced to cancel a booking, consider purchasing a gift voucher or rescheduling for further ahead. We need to rally around these businesses, otherwise they may not be here for much longer.