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The UK’s hospitality industry is not happy with the new Covid-19 plan to be adopted from December 2 in England, which was announced on Tuesday by prime minister Boris Johnson. England will implement a three-tiered system, according to which areas with higher infection rates will observe stricter social distancing rules. Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester will be in the highest lockdown tiers, while London is in the middle.
Pubs will be required to only serve people seated at a table, and stop taking orders after 10pm in Tier 1 areas; in Tier 2, people from different households won’t be allowed to meet indoors, and hospitality venues will only be able to operate if serving “substantial meals”; in Tier 3 pubs and restaurants will have to close altogether except for takeaways and delivery. The sector’s reaction has been less than ecstatic, with the chief executive of the UKHospitality trade association describing the whole industry as “being thrown to the wolves.”
On the opposite end of the debate, academics and doctors have expressed reservations about pubs being allowed to reopen at all. Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College epidemiologist and former government adviser, suggested that the decision might lead to a rise in infection levels. Chaand Nagpaul, chair of council of doctors’ trade union BMA warned that the government was about to “make the same mistakes again”, a reference to the rapid easing of lockdown restrictions this summer, when hospitality venues were reopened on July 4, and the government launched a scheme to incentivise people to “Eat Out to Help Out”.
“Crowded restaurants and pubs with little social distancing, as seen after the first lockdown, encouraged by the Eat out to Help Out initiative, represent a danger to public health,” says a BMA report setting out a strategy to exit the second lockdown.
The decision to reopen pubs on July 4 was taken after a data-crunching tool built by British artificial intelligence firm Faculty flagged up that “large numbers of pubs” risked going out of business due to the lockdown restrictions, according to Faculty’s chief operating officer Richard Sargeant.
The London-based firm – which since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic has secured at least six government contracts – has attracted scrutiny for being close to the Conservatives and to former Number 10’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings. Ben Warner, a former Faculty executive and brother of company CEO Marc, worked as Cummings’s aide and has sometimes sat as an observer in the government’s Special Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). In May, Marc revealed in a column in The Times to have attended a SAGE meeting in March, as his firm was preparing to play a role in the UK’s pandemic response.
The London-based company was awarded a £264,000 contract, as part of a pre-existing framework agreement, in March – when the novel coronavirus started to tear through the UK – to help the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) gauge the impact of the pandemic on business. Sargeant says that the objective was to create a platform that would enable policymakers to “do more real-time analysis”, as opposed to relying on retrospective statistics.
To do so, Faculty’s tool tapped into several real-time data sources, including Google Trends, Apple and Citymapper mobility data, Twitter posts, and footfall figures from customer activity firm Springboard, alongside financial and government data. “The government is drowning in data and the types of tools that we have helped to build for BEIS gave them the ability to not just float but to swim confidently through that sea of data.”
In mid-May 2020, with Britain still in lockdown, people at BEIS noticed something worrying about pubs coming out of Faculty’s tool, Sargeant claims. “BEIS analysts using this platform identified some particularly negative reactions and concerns from consumers and from pub industry representatives around the overall financial health of the industry,” he says.
“For example, there was a spike in #nationaltimeout hashtags on Twitter. Now, we were absolutely not depending on Twitter – over a couple of dozens data sources were being used, but that is just as an illustration: there was a general outpouring of concern.” Job vacancies in the hospitality sector had also dropped dramatically, a sign of “real trouble.”
According to Sargeant, who says he was given an account by a senior BEIS official, “analysts [from BEIS] fed this information to policymakers and ministers, who determined to reopen pubs on July 4, rather than to wait until the autumn.” At the time government ministers said pubs would be one of the last sectors of the economy to reopen.
“In hindsight, some people say, well, it’s a rash decision [to reopen pubs] because of the second spike,” Sargeant says.
Indeed, Britain’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty pointed out in October that a third of Covid-19 cases in the UK were contracted in hospitality venues, while a study by the University of Warwick blamed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – intended as a shot in the arm for pubs and restaurants after the first lockdown’s hardship – for a spike in infections.
“Had [the government] not taken that decision to reopen on July 4 – counterfactuals are always difficult – I think that the data suggests that large numbers of pubs would have closed,” Sargeant says. “I understand that in April, they [BEIS personnel] could see one per cent coming off GDP every day.”
The fact pubs are now facing stricter restrictions than they did in July does not necessarily suggest that the data is more reassuring, however. It might just be that the risk of infection does not allow the government to take the same approach it took in the summer.
”The issue is: we know that transmission tends to occur inside instead of outside,” says Keith Neal, an emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham. “In the summer, people could eat outside, which is not an option now, unless you are dressed in arctic clothing.”
Neal suggests that another reason why the government would want to stick to tougher restrictions is that the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine is now within reach. “You can’t stay in lockdown forever,” he says. “But now, as opposed to in the summer, there’s a good argument to maintain restrictions because there’s a vaccine coming soon. Since we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it makes sense to preserve people’s health by maintaining restrictions [until an immunisation programme has started].”
“At each stage of the pandemic we have sought to suppress the virus whilst protecting both lives and livelihoods”, a spokesperson for BEIS said in an emailed statement. They add that all measures are informed by scientific and medical advice. BEIS did not address direct questions on the role Faculty’s tool played in its decision to reopen pubs in the summer, and on whether the tool is currently being used to devise a post-lockdown strategy.
While Sargeant and Faculty are not involved in operating the platform or in BEIS’s policy decisions, he says that the department “are using these data tools daily.” Whatever decision will be taken regarding the future of pubs, Faculty’s platform might play a role in it.
Updated 27.11.2020, 11.13 GMT: This article has been amended to clarify that the three-tiered system applies only to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate Covid-19 response plans.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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