Artillery Row

The Government stole Christmas

For small businesses, Sunak’s billion is a pimple patch on a sucking chest wound

In the dark, one can just make them out. A queue stretches along a corrugated concrete wall, leading to a stair, and up to a peeling, yellow-painted, padlocked gate. It’s three in the morning of the winter solstice, and Lisa is proudly at the front of the queue.

A young woman in her early thirties, she had come prepared with a small folding chair, the sort that one might take to a game of village cricket.

“I got here at 1.45am,” she cheerily told me.

“But the market opens at 4?”

“Yes. I’ve got my chair, I have my coat, I’ve got a film downloaded from Netflix, and I really love my seafood. Why would I go to the high street and pay double the prices here?”

Her logic was unassailable. Weird, certainly, in a “it’s ruddy cold, it’s the middle of the night, it’s December and you are queuing for three hours just to ensure you get first dibs on a pile of crustaceans” way, but unassailable.

‘Restaurants are terrified to buy meat in case there’s a Boxing day lockdown’

I had gone back to the three London night markets to see how they were faring. I’d last been round in November last year and I’d been planning this trip for a few weeks. I had thought that this year, in the lead up to Christmas, I would be able to report an industry back to its best. The hospitality industry, pubs, restaurants were reporting bumper bookings, contract catering had been going well, and work and family Chjristmas events were booked. But then came Omicron. Or rather, then came the Government’s reaction to Omicron. Business has just fallen off a cliff, and the Government’s new aid package is, for these night toilers, a pimple patch on a sucking chest wound.

Greg Lawrence, a grizzled veteran of 55 Smithfield Christmasses and Chairman of the The Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association, sits in his cash cabin, looking for all the world like a flat-capped vizier. He stamps and passes hand written receipts back and forth through the window, each accompanied with a grunt of steely affability.

His son, also Greg, gives a minimalist market cry, bellowing to the eddies of passing trade, “Pork, Beef, Lamb. Pork, Beef, Lamb”. The market’s Central Avenue has customers, but it isn’t bustling. According to Lawrence senior, the market generates just shy of a billion pounds in revenue per annum, with the month leading up to Christmas making up a full quarter of that.

“You’ve got restaurants terrified to buy any meat because they don’t know if there will be a lockdown on Boxing day, same goes for pubs. I’ve always been a supporter of Boris, but the way that the Government has performed on this issue in the last few weeks leaves a lot to be desired. To be polite, I’m very disappointed.

“This year we had quietly recovered to pre-Covid figures by mid September, but this Christmas is no good at all. The Christmas trade is humongous. In normal times it would be like sardines right now, and look at it” — he waved his cleaver hands at the customers.

“Imagine the amount of  meat now being held back. Hotels and venues will have ordered 50 turkeys for an event, and they hold 5 events a week. All of them are cancelled. That’s 250 turkeys (plus everything else that goes with the turkey), now sitting that has to go into cold storage, which takes up space and money. The farms have got away with it for now, and good luck to them, but here at the wholesaler end, Smithfield Market, we have a meat traffic jam.”

The government can wash its hands of the chaos its guidelines have caused

Because there have only been guidelines, and not a lockdown, the cancellations are voluntary and not legal force majeure. Thus the government can wash its hands of the chaos its guidelines have caused, leaving the mostly small and independent businesses to carry the financial load. If 250 turkeys alone for one week in a single venue can cost £7000, one can see how costs across the trade are spiralling.

He went on, “I don’t like the look of next year at all. The bounceback loans from last year now need to be paid and we are losing money rather than making it during what should be our best time of the year, the weeks that carry us through quieter periods.” He described the trumpeted plan of grants of up to £6000 for firms in the hospitality trade as “a disgrace. That money will not scratch the surface at all. It is an insult and an embarrassment”.

He received vocal support from Gary Marshall over at New Covent Garden, the Chairman of Covent Garden Tenants Association.

“A billion pounds sounds like a lot of money, but it’s six grand, 120 pounds a week, 15 quid a day. You know what I mean? 15 a day!  We can’t turn our fridges off. I’m far from being a Boris fan myself, I had experience of him as London Mayor, I found him to be polite if devious and self promoting, but you wouldn’t want to be in his position.”

Paul Grimshaw, from the D.D.P. ltd. who hold the Royal Warrant for Fruit and Vegetables, pointed out the limitations of Sunak’s billion: “Without the fishmonger, the meat guy, the fruit and veg guy, the drinks guy, the glassware, anything, there is no hospitality industry, but we all get zero support because we are not classified as hospitality. Essential but not hospitable.”

As Marshall pointed out, the Flower market (the other half of New Covent Garden) had the worst of all worlds, because “nobody could ever claim that they are either part of hospitality, and it’s a push to describe cut flowers as a necessity. They are totally ignored. Even if we get onto the hospitality list for the 6 grand, they can’t but they still lose when venues close”.

There was a sign of positivity though, as Marshall pointed out, “The public has learned to cook again, they fell in love with food again. People want quality, variety and consistency, they don’t get it at supermarkets, but they do get it from us.”

Back at Billingsgate, Lisa folded her chair and looked back at the queue that now stretched for hundreds of yards in a great snake around the car park. One night last week people waited for up to four hours to get in. But these customers walk away with a couple of shopping bags they really don’t compensate for those missing, who used to drive away in vans and trucks.

Across the three markets, the direct retail trade is booming, and the traders are being innovative. But the Government’s shadow crash and its paltry assistance to a highly selective group of businesses is causing anger and distress in equal measure. These small businesses, often family firms stretching back many generations, are natural Tories — but support is supposed to go both ways.

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