UK pub and restaurant owners have warned of staff shortages after thousands of workers left the hospitality industry to return to their home countries or take other jobs during the pandemic.
Operators from across the industry told the Financial Times that when they recalled furloughed staff in preparation for the reopening of outdoor drinking and dining in England this week, they discovered many did not want to return.
“We have some businesses where we have lost quite a few of the team [and because of furlough] it is not until now that operators have realised that they may not have all the staff come back,” said Phil Urban, chief executive of Mitchells & Butlers, the UK’s largest listed pub group.
Urban estimated that about 9,000 of M&B’s 39,000 staff had left since the first lockdown last year, many to take other jobs in home delivery or essential retail, which have boomed during the pandemic.
Jeremy King, chief executive of Corbin & King, which owns The Wolseley and Delaunay restaurants in London, said he had expected to need 20 new staff to take the group’s headcount to about 600 ahead of reopening but now had 130 roles to fill. “People said actually we are not going to come back. I don’t think restaurateurs realise how serious it is.”
Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D, owner of 38 restaurants in London, Manchester and Leeds, said he was planning a “rapid rebuild” of the company’s workforce to cater for high demand.
“Quite how much of a challenge that will be with many EU staff having permanently left the UK, we don’t know, but I do think it will be tough,” he said.
According to the rules of the furlough scheme, employees are not permitted to work for the employer that has applied for the support but they are allowed to find another job. There is also no rule against staff on furlough basing themselves abroad.
During the most recent lockdown, the hospitality industry had about 2m staff on furlough, according to the trade body UKHospitality. Over the course of the pandemic, 660,000 people working in the sector have lost their jobs.
Kate Nicholls, head of UKHospitality, said the problem of labour shortages “was just emerging” and was partly because it was hard for employers to offer staff guaranteed hours because of uncertainty about trading. Restrictions on restaurant and pub customer numbers in England are expected to stay in force until at least June 21, even after operators are able to open for indoor service from May 17.
So far, the problem is being most acutely felt in London, which generally had a higher proportion of foreign workers. One small London pub chain estimated it had lost about 20 per cent of its staff.
Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Greene King, said staff tended to have been on furlough for longer in bigger cities, where trading was particularly quiet because of the lack of tourists and office workers, and therefore had been more likely to try to find other work.
According to data from CGA and AlixPartners Market Recovery Monitor, on the first day of reopening in England on Monday, sales at pubs, bars and restaurants with outdoor space were up 64 per cent on the equivalent day in 2019 and 94 per cent up in London.
However, on Wednesday and Thursday, there were double-digit declines in trade compared with 2019.
Only 23 per cent of English venues have been able to open for outside trade.