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‘Brutal’ time for hospitality as bars and restaurants close for lack of staff

·7-min read
‘Brutal’ time for hospitality as bars and restaurants close for lack of staff

A quarter of pubs, restaurants and hotels have been forced to shut up shop or close for part of the week because of the UK’s chronic staff shortage, new figures reveal.

There are almost 200,000 vacant positions across the country, with fears the problem could worsen over the Christmas period as hospitality firms compete with retailers and delivery businesses for staff.

UK Hospitality found thousands of pubs and restaurants had been forced to slash opening hours, while one in five expected deliveries are not making it to restaurant kitchens.

According to the industry body’s poll of 700 members representing 90 per cent of the UK’s pubs, bars and restaurants, revenue is down by a fifth as a result of the issues.

A separate survey found almost half of bars and nightclubs have not been able to operate at full capacity because they can’t find enough security staff.

We’ve lost people to Brexit and I just don’t think Britain is as attractive a place to work any more

Louise MacLean, Signature Group

“When you post jobs there are no applicants. Nobody wants to work in hospitality any more,” said Louise MacLean, business and development manager at Signature Group, which runs dozens of pubs and restaurants across Scotland.

The company has cut its total opening hours by around 20 per cent, with a number of its pubs closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“We’ve lost people to Brexit and I just don’t think Britain is as attractive a place to work any more. It’s also a lot harder to come and work here,” MacLean said.

“A lot of people who got a second job while they were on furlough, like driving for Amazon or working at Tesco, haven’t come back. It was more secure, they knew it wasn’t going to be shut down. That’s had a huge impact in confidence in hospitality as a sector.”

An advert for drivers and warehouse staff on the side of a lorry (PA)
An advert for drivers and warehouse staff on the side of a lorry (PA)

Businesses say they are going through a “brutal” time due to an exodus of staff that is crippling large parts of the UK’s food supply chain.

“The situation is desperate,” Ms MacLean added. “Every time the phone rings we are braced for: is it a new Covid case?, is it a resignation, have we done the maths and realised we don't have enough staff to open on the Monday?"

There is now growing dismay among hospitality and food industry businesses that the government is fighting a rear-guard action against problems that they have repeatedly warned about for months.

Ministers have offered fixes that are seen as short-term, piecemeal and too late while steadfastly refusing to recognise the gravity of the situation or overhaul the post-Brexit immigration system, according to industry figures.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, warned that without government intervention, the situation is about to worsen. And while Covid had been the primary driving force behind the industry’s labour crisis, Brexit is making things worse.

“At the moment businesses are able to ride it out because of business rates relief and the VAT cut, but it will not be sustainable in the long term when that is removed next year.

We have a 10 per cent vacancy rate across the sector and there’s been no influx of workers after furlough ended... There just aren’t sufficient staff to fulfil all the demand that’s out there

Kate Nicholls, UK Hospitality

She added: “There is no sign of improvement. We have a 10 per cent vacancy rate across the sector and there’s been no influx of workers after furlough ended... There just aren’t sufficient staff to fulfil all the demand that’s out there.

“Brexit doesn’t help with the solutions, it makes things more difficult.”

As for much of the pandemic, hospitality firms are feeling labour problems most acutely. A fifth of the workforce did not return from furlough, leaving a dearth of experienced and skilled workers such as chefs and restaurant managers. Now, the sector is struggling to recruit even for entry-level roles.

For every job hunter seeking a role in hospitality there are 1.7 jobs available, according to Manpower. The recruitment firm had four times the number of hospitality vacancies last month as it did in September 2019.

Sharif Uddin, who owns the Kushi chain of Indian restaurants in London’s East End and Essex said he will soon be forced to operate at just 50 per cent capacity.

“Skilled, quality chefs aren’t on the market for the salaries that make our restaurants viable,” he said.

He has found that many young people starting their careers favour jobs at large retailers thanks to better starting salaries and easier working hours.

Skilled, quality chefs aren’t on the market for the salaries that make our restaurants viable

Sharif Uddin, Kushi restaurants

“You can only deliver to the maximum capability with the staff you have, taking on less custom to make sure you are satisfying those that you can confidently service,” Uddin said.

“Christmas will not be the same as it was before the pandemic. It’s normally the busiest period in the hospitality sector. But with the severe staff shortages we will only be able to operate at 50 per cent of capacity.”

Adam Byatt, Michelin starred chef, and owner of Trinity restaurant in Clapham has faced similar struggles. “It’s been brutal,” he said. Since we’ve been back after the last lockdown we’ve only had three weeks where our business is fully functional and operational. Other than that it’s been curtailed because of a lack of staff.”

Shuttered restaurants and empty supermarket shelves may be the most visible signs of the supply chain crisis but behind the scenes, an even more difficult situation is unfolding. Logistics and agriculture bosses report growing friction all the way along the vital arteries that move food into and around the country.

At Heathrow, backlogs in global shipping lanes and at container ports have meant businesses are now flying in stock that would normally travel by sea, in a bid to ensure Christmas supplies.

Despite hiking wages and offering better working conditions, logistics businesses have too few people to offload goods at airports, stack them in warehouses or transport them.

Mike Parr, chief executive of PML, which transports food from air and sea ports, said perishable goods including flowers and fruit were often waiting for two days in warehouses at the airport, leading to more waste.

It is a nightmare and it is only going to get worse. The pressures on us at the moment are incredible

Mike Parr, PML logistics

Heathrow made large numbers of its logistics staff redundant to cut costs during the pandemic and now cannot find people to replace them, causing a backlog of goods and meaning food is not fresh when it arrives at restaurants and supermarkets.

“It is a nightmare and it is only going to get worse,” said Mr Parr. “The pressures on us at the moment are incredible.”

The company has found it “more and more difficult” to find the drivers it needs.

He warned that the Christmas period will be “painful”, with a shortage of drivers worsening in December when the Post Office typically lures drivers from other companies with higher salaries.

The government’s handling of Brexit has contributed to problems and a short-term visa scheme for lorry drivers has done little to help, Mr Parr said.

“The European drivers don’t want to come back because conditions there are much better. Why would they want to come over only on a short-term visa?”, asked Mr Parr.

Hopes that the furlough scheme coming to an end would alleviate problems were misplaced and vacancies across the economy have continued to rise, with the number of job postings hitting a record high of 2.7 million last week.

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