Pam and mark browns marriage is a tale of the uks covid-19 economy. while his logistics company has boomed in the pandemic delivering essential supplies for the health service in the north-east of england her small caf in the town of gateshead has fought for survival.
Caf dominics was saved by the governments economic support schemes, but now it is struggling with increased social restrictions and, potentially, another covid-induced closure. the number of caf tables has halved to five and opening hours restricted to mornings and lunchtimes. yet, on wednesday afternoon,there were still a dozen customers eating in their bubbles.
Were doing the right things...screens, you know, every gesture, because as soon as lockdown eased, we could rely on regular customers, says mr brown, pointing at the plastic dividers between and across every table. but if the caf is shuttered again, the impact will be deep. its trade is workmen stopping in for breakfast, but also retirees and residents enjoying coffees and lunches.
Even more so than pubs and restaurants, cafs are core to tightknit english communities.gesturing at one customer, mark says. moira will be here every day, its part of the social side of life...to meet people here. were just trying to help and mitigate [the risk from the virus] as much as possible.
It is the same for the staiths caf, nearby on the banks of the river tyne in the heart of a new housing development. co-owner susie hodgson says the social role her business plays is key. were really fortunate to have support from our local community were embedded in...id have hated to be in the middle of town. people came in to buy loaves of bread just to support us.
But unlike with its first lockdown in march, the government is tackling the second wave of coronavirus infections more cautiously. chancellor rishi sunak has acknowledged that he cant save every job.
With the uk hospitality sector facing the twin trials of lower demand and further covid-19 restrictions, small businesses are most at risk. food and drink north east, a lobby group representing 200 eateries, has warned that the hospitality sector in the region is on its knees and needs more help. it is part of the heart and soul of our towns and cities and must be protected.
Leaders in the north east blame the failure of the governments testing and contact tracing system. nick forbes, the labour leader of newcastle city council, is fearful that the region is on the cusp of losing significant parts of its hospitality industry. he argues that the government is washing their hands of what is a sustainable sector.
A lot of the businesses were talking about would be viable but are not due to the restrictions, he says. we asked the government for a support package four weeks ago, yet nothing has emerged. a lot of those businesses are actively thinking of closing because they just cant see a way through.
Mr forbes wants a tailored job retention scheme along the lines of the furlough system to help hospitality buy time until test and trace is working. such a scheme is likely to be announced by mr sunak next week. while a stricter lockdown may quell the virus in the region, he believes such measures are not viable for long. were not going to beat this through ever-tighter restrictions, we want the least amount of restrictions for the shortest space of time.
Caf dominics strategy is to keep overheads low. what well do is make a strategic decision to close the business if needed to protect it for the longer term, the owners say. the staiths caf thinks it will be fine as long as it doesnt go on too long. but patrons of both cafs will have few places to meet in the tough, cold months ahead if they are forced to close. the social trauma of shutting down hospitality will be high.
For mr and mrs brown, whose business has served the community since 1963, survival following another closure is uncertain. i cannot [see a way through] if our hours are still restricted, says pam. the business is running, were trying to build it back up, but its gonna be tough, her husband adds. the faces of customers listening in suggest they know the winter ahead will be tough too.