The government’s new three tier lockdown system kicks in today with regions of England graded according to the severity of the coronavirus infection rate in the area.
While most of the country is currently in the medium (tier one) category, which enforces the existing rule of six and 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, the Liverpool city region, with just over 630 cases per 100,000 residents, is the only area to be placed in the very high (tier three) category. Boris Johnson has made it clear that, without further intervention, the NHS could be put under untenable pressure.
It means 1.5 million people across Liverpool city and the surrounding boroughs of Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral are now under the most stringent new restrictions whereby households must no longer mix indoors or at outdoor hospitality venues; gyms, pubs and bars have been ordered to close; and there is guidance against all but essential travel in and out of the area. Shops, schools and universities, though, will remain open.
The new restrictions have come as a heavy blow for local hoteliers and business owners who have relied heavily on the staycation market since July.
2 Blackburne Terrace is a luxury B&B in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter. Owners Glenn and Sarah Whitter took the difficult decision not to reopen in July, but they remain positive for 2021.
“We thought we may open in late autumn but have taken a cautious approach and now see spring as our new opening date”, says Sarah. “It’s not an easy decision to make but health comes first. I’m anxious for the city itself but, personally, we’re just tightening our belts and taking a long view”.
For other hoteliers, closure isn’t an option as funding is currently only offered to the pubs and bars who have been forced to close.
At the beginning of the year, Lock & Key Hotel on Duke Street was set to expand into the neighbouring building but plans were halted in March when lockdown was imposed on the country.
The 14-bedroom boutique hotel reopened in line with national guidelines on 4 July and experienced high occupancy throughout July and August as locals took advantage of childcare for the first time since before lockdown, and national visitors included Liverpool on northern road trip routes.
But the hotel was inundated with cancellations as soon as the new restrictions were announced at the government press conference on 11 October.
While co-owner and hotel director Andrew Spencer said they will survive the next few months, and will be able to keep on their lean team of staff, they will be relying on a hyper-local staycation market.
“Back in 2016-17, we designed our rooms around an in-room cocktail offer and that’s now more relevant than ever,” says Spencer. “We’ve invested in tablet devices for each room that allow guests to order from the bar. Occupancy will be much lower for a while, but hopefully in-room spend will increase while bars and pubs are closed and guests can order drinks to their room post 10pm.”
Spencer and his business partners own the building and so their financial stability is very different to that of many other business owners around the city.
Hope Street Hotel was also in the midst of a major expansion when lockdown hit in March. The addition of 61 rooms, spa, indoor and outdoor pools, cinema and additional conference facilities was delayed by five months, but the development is now close to completion. Last week, the hotel was named as the UK’s best city hotel for 2020 by The Times yet the mood here is one of frustration rather than celebration.
“With so many livelihoods at stake, these three-tier restrictions are hugely worrying and damaging for the hospitality sector,” says chief executive Dave Brewitt, who feels the measures are inappropriately targeted, unfocused and unsupported.
He added: “There seems very little evidence that the hospitality sector has performed badly in helping to prevent the spread of the virus. We are a very heavily regulated industry with exceptionally high standards around safety”.
Things are more worrying at Albert Dock, Liverpool’s most visited attraction, as high rent coupled with reduced visitor numbers could decimate independent businesses trading there. Dockside venues are populated mostly by tourists and regional visitors and so footfall is expected to drop drastically while travel into the city is restricted. The closure of M&S Bank Arena earlier in the year also had a big impact on waterfront bars and restaurants.
Chris Edwards is co-owner of Mexican restaurant Madre, which he predicts will need to close due to the impact of the tier three travel restrictions. “With no rent relief on Albert Dock, it will be hard to break even”, says Edwards. “The cash at the bank will eventually run out and there’s no support for us while we’re still trading. We may have to close for the foreseeable and make a case for the business being unviable due to reduced footfall”.
He fears that Albert Dock – which took decades of redevelopment and EU funding to become what it is today – will be set back and take a long time to recover.
“We can’t afford businesses to fold because the loss of income from business rates will push council finances over a cliff,” Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson said.
“In Liverpool, 48 per cent of our business rates come from the hospitality sector.”
Leaders from Liverpool city region’s six local authorities have requested a “clear definition of the exit strategy from tier three.” The measures are currently in place for six months with a monthly review by central government, but so far it’s unclear what will be required to downgrade the region to tier two.
The mood in Liverpool – a defiantly Labour stronghold – is a mix of frustration, disappointment and contempt. There’s a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the country (one not unfamiliar to some) and a painful awareness of the regional and national divisions that the blameworthy, tiered system has already thrown up, implicating the north, North West and of course Merseyside most potently.
Liverpool has an unyielding sense of loyalty, togetherness and independence. The whole city is feeling the unjust pressure on local businesses and there’s a growing anger on the lack of clarity for the shuttered arts and music venues that have helped to shape the city.
Liverpool-born DJ Yousef Zaher is concerned about the long-term impact on both the freelance economy and the city as a whole. “Music has been the beating heart of Liverpool for almost 100 years,” says Yousef, who co-founded club night Circus and record label Circus Recordings. “Without it, the city loses a massive part of its identity”.
The message from business owners is clear: the incredibly damaging measures of tier three lockdown need to be underpinned with clear and thorough guidance and comprehensive financial support to protect jobs and livelihoods that have been decades in the making.