Shortage of waiters leaves UK hospitality struggling

Sector among hardest hit by pandemic with restaurants and cafes toiling to recruit as lockdown eases

Waiters serve people eating and drinking at outside tables on Saturday evening, April 24, 2021, in Soho, central London, following the further easing of lockdown coronavirus restrictions in England. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

British hospitality businesses are struggling to recruit new workers such as waiters and chefs as venues reopen to the public.

Hospitality outlets are set to start serving indoors from May 17, with business owners expecting a surge in demand from consumers keen to splurge the £150 billion ($209.13bn) in savings built up during the crisis when there were few opportunities to spend.

However, business owners are finding it increasingly hard to fill the 355,000 positions lost during the pandemic ahead of the May 17 reopening – part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's roadmap out of lockdown.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of lobby group UK Hospitality, said the industry was unable to furlough all staff during the pandemic and companies were trying to recruit in a difficult market.

“Clearly, hospitality is at the back of the queue for reopening with a large amount of uncertainty hanging over it around when those restrictions will be lifted,” Ms Nicholls told the BBC.

“That's hampering our ability to attract staff because the industry is still seen as being at risk of potentially closing or having severe restrictions again, which means we can't have people in full-time roles.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak, hospitality was the third largest employer in the country, providing jobs for 3.2 million people and creating an annual £130bn in economic activity, UK Hospitality said.

However, the crisis saw many businesses either furlough staff or terminate positions after three lockdowns in England forced hospitality venues to close doors.

Recent unemployment data showed that four in five people who have lost their jobs since the pandemic began are under 35, and that between December and February the number of people in paid employment dropped by 56,000, the Office for National Statistics said.

Hospitality businesses were the worst hit, with 355,000 fewer employees in the sector in April than a year before, accounting for 43 per cent of the national total.

The industry’s younger workforce was reflected in the figures, with 78 per cent of those leaving the payroll under 35, and more than half who lost jobs under 25.

Ms Nicholls said some furloughed workers chose to work in other industries and won’t return to hospitality.

Meanwhile, European and foreign workers who were furloughed may struggle to pick up their job again because they returned home and are now unable to return to the UK because of travel restrictions, she said, creating a “crunch point”.

Activity in the sector has picked up since hospitality venues were able to serve customers outdoors on April 12.

Seated diner reservations in the UK on April 24 were at 62 per cent of the level on the same Saturday in 2019, OpenTable UK data showed.

Restaurant chain Pizza Express is among major hospitality employers looking to hire. This month, the company said it was looking to recruit 1,000 new employees as it prepares to welcome indoor customers – only six months after the chain said it would axe 1,300 positions.

Meanwhile, D&D, one of Britain’s largest fine-dining groups, is looking to hire 350 people across 43 restaurants, while James Chiavarini, the owner of Il Portico, London’s oldest family restaurant, said wages are going through the roof, with new staff demanding much higher salaries.

“I have chefs who usually would be on £35,000 and they are now saying, ‘we want £50,000’,” he said.

Ms Nicholls said work needs to be done to match those made redundant with the vacancies available and attract people back to hospitality.

“But we do need the government to end the uncertainty around hospitality and give the confirmation that those restrictions are being lifted on June 21, that we can come back without restrictions, operate at full strength and offer full-time job opportunities to these people," she said.

"Part of the problem at the moment is that the industry has so much uncertainty around it.”

More on UK hospitality

Business in Lockdown: 'I was always lucky but now my savings are gone'

UK companies rebound in March ahead of lockdown easing

Startling numbers expose true cost of UK’s lockdowns

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