Covid fears driving diners away say Luton and Dunstable restaurant bosses

'In my 21 years in the business I have never seen a situation like this'

Tuesday, 21st December 2021, 3:20 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st December 2021, 5:11 pm

Luton and Dunstable restaurants and bars are facing a tough Christmas as Covid fears keep customers away.

The rapidly rising number of cases both locally and nationwide has seen businesses already reeling from previous lockdowns, badly hit by cancellations.

Italian restaurant owner Leo from Monna Lisa on Guildford Street in Luton said he had had around 200 people cancel bookings in the past couple of weeks.

The Frog and Rhubarb on Tuesday lunchtime, still waiting for customers

"In my 21 years in the business I have never seen a situation like this," he said. "It's very bad here, it's parties cancelling," he said. "Normally we are busy every day. "We really, really need help to carry on or close down."

And the owner of the Frog and Rhubarb in Church Street, Slip End, said business was down to about two thirds of pre-lockdown figures.

Paul Cooper said they had still held Christmas parties, which had been paid for three weeks in advance, but that people were tending to leave at around 10.30pm instead of staying the whole evening.

And they were only seeing about 10% of custom for the non-Christmas menus. "People are more hesitant when they come out," he said.

"December is essential to keep us going for the rest of the year," he said. "Without a proper December turnout this year there isn't enough to support the business through the next year.

"I've been here 22 years and the past two years have been extremely taxing. The Government needs to consider some sort of grant for the hospitality trade taking us beyond March."

Some restaurants have been bucking the trend however. Carriages Italian restaurant on Tennyson Road in Luton said it had had few cancellations and those were mainly from people in the party contracting Covid. Manager Norbert said: "We have had no big party cancellations, so far it has not been bad."

Landlord of the White Lion pub in Watling Street, Dunstable, Adrian Mirza, said it had not had a big impact on trade. "People just want to carry on with their lives," he said. He said there had been no party cancellations but they were seeing smaller table bookings. "It's had no real impact and I hope it will stay like that," he said.

Today (Tuesday), Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £1billion bailout package, mainly to help firms in the leisure and hospitality sector. Prior to that announcement, Luton's MP had spoken out about the need for swift support for businesses.

Luton North MP Sarah Owen said: “With Covid cases on the rise again, the extra measures were needed to limit hospitalisation numbers and hopefully prevent another full lockdown but we have consistently argued that the Government should listen to businesses in Luton and support those that have been affected.

“As people become more cautious, then restaurants and pubs will be hit again which is why there should be targeted support for businesses like them. During this critical time for our town and country, Labour would increase and expand sick pay, and allow smaller firms to claim back the costs to help staff self-isolate."

And Luton South MP Rachel Hopkins stated: “It’s a disgrace that the government has not provided businesses with the necessary support to help them through the winter. Businesses in our town are facing a potentially ruinous winter, with rising costs and cancelled bookings.

“Time and time again, the Labour Party has stated that any increased restrictions must be paired with greater business support to offset the impact.

“I have written to the Chancellor to call for further support measures to help Luton South businesses through the crisis. Businesses and workers should not have to pay the price for the government’s complacency.”

South West Beds MP, Andrew Selous, said: "I have been lobbying the Treasury since the first pub contacted me to say that footfall was down and that cancellations were growing. I am delighted with the £1 billion fund and the £6,000 per premises announced by the Chancellor today with additional discretionary help if needed.”

A Luton Council spokesman added: "Throughout the Covid pandemic the council has done all it can to help local businesses, support a safe return to the high street, pubs and restaurants and lobby the government for assistance.

"When restrictions have been put in place by central government, the council has been a conduit for government funding to businesses affected. Over the past 20 months 10,789 business grants have been awarded and a total of £54,625,323 paid out to Luton businesses.

"We appreciate the current uncertainty around future measures over the festive period is causing great uncertainty for business owners and the general public. For this reason we welcome today’s government announcement pledging £1bn to the hospitality sector. This will allow businesses to apply for a one-off grant of £6K and there will be new discretionary funding for other businesses; statutory sick pay for covid related absences for small/medium employees and more money for the cultural recovery fund.

"As soon as we receive further clarity on the details, we will implement the funding channels as quickly as possible in order to continue supporting our local economy."

A Central Beds Council spokesman said: "On 15 December 2021, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) published guidance for £1.5bn of additional business rates relief, which was originally announced in March 2021. The additional relief, now called the COVID-19 Additional Relief Fund (CARF) is to support businesses affected by the pandemic. We have been allocated just over £5.3 million and are working to understand the number of businesses we can support and in which sectors, and how much they will each receive.

"Additionally, we are looking at how to support businesses impacted by the spread of the Omicron variant by using remaining unallocated Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) scheme funding. More information will be published on our website in the new year.”

How has your business been affected? Have you cancelled your booking at a local business. Send your views to [email protected]