Hospitality firms such as pubs and restaurants were already struggling to find enough staff before they were hit by “pingdemic” absences caused by employees being told to isolate by NHS test and trace, according to official figures.
Revenues were still below 70% pre-pandemic levels at the end of May, according to data from the Office for National Statistics released on Monday, with pubs and nightclubs faring even worse.
The sector is recovering from the lows it experienced in lockdown but the figures suggest the rebound could be slowed by the difficulty that businesses still face in finding staff to fill a rising number of open positions.
There were an estimated 102,000 job vacancies in hospitality between April and June, nearly five-and-a-half times higher than the 19,000 recorded in December to February, and more than 20% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Finding staff for pubs, restaurants, clubs and hotels has become more difficult since the ONS survey, as businesses wrestle with the impact of thousands of staff having to self-isolate after being “pinged” by NHS test and trace.
Kate Allen, the owner of the luxury holiday lettings business Salcombe Finest, said the effects of widespread isolation demands from the NHS Covid app were “frankly ludicrous”.
“It’s no surprise the app is being deleted in the hospitality industry faster than a U2 album on iTunes,” she said.
“Coastal hospitality businesses make between 70% and 80% of their annual turnover in the next six weeks during the school holidays. If the app isn’t abolished right now, our window of opportunity will be gone.”
The trade body UK Hospitality has joined calls from across the business world to reform the app or allow people to work after a negative test, with the view backed up by the CBI lobby group and businesses such as Marks & Spencer and Asos.
Within hospitality, some firms are likely to be hit harder than others by staff absence, given that the ONS survey identified significant variance within hospitality in how businesses are performing relative to before the pandemic.
Outdoor-focused businesses such as campsites and trailer parks received nearly 50% higher revenues in May 2021 than in the same month of 2019 but venues that serve drinks and hotels were nearly 50% worse off, with pubs and clubs down 61%.
The ONS research also found that the rebound among customer-facing businesses is not necessarily filtering through to the wider supply chain, such as food producers and breweries.
The total value of payments from food and drink businesses to their suppliers and contractors in May 2021 was only 51% of its pre-pandemic level in February 2020.
The Society of Independent Brewers (Siba) said the analysis showed the “continued toll on our struggling pubs and brewers devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic”.
The Siba chief executive, James Calder, called for measures to help the beer industry sustain its recovery, including a duty cut on draught beer and positive reform of tax breaks for small brewers.
The British Beer and Pub Association chief executive, Emma McClarkin, added to the calls for help for the sector, advocating reform of VAT and business rates.
“The recovery of our sector has only just begun now restrictions have been lifted, but these ONS figures show far our sector has to go to return to viability,” she said.
“The numbers are clear – more investment is needed now for our sector so it can play a leading role in building society and the economy back better.”