The government on Monday warned restaurants not to abuse coronavirus restrictions by exploiting a loophole for “business lunches” to fill their tables during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Downing Street said that where possible it wanted people to conduct business meetings by phone call or video conference rather than in restaurants, in order to reduce the chains of transmission of the disease.
The possibility of being able to host business lunches has been seized on by restaurants as a lifeline after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new three-tier system of Covid-19 restrictions in England hit already depressed sales in the hospitality industry.
Under tier 2 restrictions — introduced in London and Birmingham this month among other areas — members of different households are banned from mixing indoors unless the meeting comes under one of a number of exemptions, including if it is “reasonably necessary” for work.
This prompted a mass reaction on social media as people mused on ways to use the business lunch loophole to see family and friends.
The prime minister’s spokesman said he was not aware of people holding “fake” business meetings in restaurants, but added that guidance on business dining was intended specifically for those who could not meet in other venues.
“There’s an understanding that it was for people like the self-employed or freelancers who need to have face-to-face meetings but have nowhere else to hold them,” he added.
Restaurateurs railed against Downing Street’s apparent attempt to narrow the exemption and said that enforcing the restrictions would be impossible.
“How can they regulate this? In what way are they expecting people to be checked in terms of their employment status? It’s taking it to another level of absurdity,” said Ranjit Mathrani, chairman of MW Eat, which runs the casual dining chain Masala Zone as well as the high-end London restaurants Veeraswamy and Chutney Mary.
Jeremy King, chief executive of Corbin & King, which owns white-collar favourites such as the Wolseley and the Delaunay restaurants, described trading under the tier 2 rules as “catastrophic” and that if the business meeting option was taken away “the government has to shut us all down because it’s incredibly limited if it’s pure single household”.
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Both said the rule against different households mixing had cut sales from about 60 per cent of last year’s levels to about 30 per cent, which Mr King described as “completely untenable”. However, he said limited business trade had helped sales improve this week.
Corbin & King and MW Eat are among several restaurant groups and private members’ clubs — including Caprice Holdings, which owns the Ivy restaurants, and the Oxford and Cambridge Club — that sent messages to customers last week emphasising that they would welcome business meetings in their restaurants.
The onus, however, is on the customer as government restrictions stipulate that those found to be breaking the one-household indoor-mixing rule are steep, starting at £100 for the first offence and doubling with each subsequent breach up to a total of £6,400.