As London, and other parts of the country, implement tier 2 coronavirus restrictions, it feels like yet again the government is imposing vague and arbitrary rules under the guise of meaningful guidance.
The new rules state that the 10pm curfew will continue, the rule of six will be enforced and – perhaps the most difficult one – that households will not be able to mix indoors. Fines for meeting in larger groups start at £200, increasing to as much £6400; while groups of over 30 can incur a fine of up to £10,000.
These changes will have big implications for hospitality workers and will once again see them forced to police such gatherings at an ever-increasing personal and professional cost.
A lose-lose situation.
The last few months have seen the role of bartender shift from someone who is able to provide excellent service and even better beer, to someone who is expected to police the pubs and bars they work in. Along with performing their regular duties, running track and trace, scanning QR codes and enforcing a range of arbitrary rules have all become part of the job.
Escalating an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, under the tier 2 rules hospitality staff will be expected to be able to decipher – by some psychic ability apparently – if a given group of people belongs to the same household. In the event that they suspect them to be lying, staff are required to report their suspicions – in effect getting workers to snitch on their customers.
But even for those workers who are willing to play along, they will still be at risk of getting punished and fined themselves. In what is clearly a lose-lose situation for workers, instead of customers being made to pay for flouting the one household rule, it will be staff members who bear the consequences – regardless of whether they are aware of such a breach or not.
During the first lockdown, the rule of six saw communities encouraged to report on their neighbours if they thought too many people were congregating in houses and gardens. These new rules further the government’s agenda in ensuring that people blame each other for the spread of the virus rather than looking to the true culprit: the state.
Such dynamics will likely lead to an increasingly hostile work environment, with staff put into uncomfortable and dangerous situations when they try to enforce the rules. Already, there are countless stories of workers being shouted at and abused because they have asked someone to put a mask on or enforced the rule of six. Given the increased severity of tier 2, it is reasonable to assume this aggression will only increase going forward – especially given that the country’s exasperation at the government’s confusing measures is only growing.
From the very beginning of lockdown, rules have felt unclear and divisive. We saw Muslim communities banned from celebrating Eid with family unless they chose to do so in a pub. Mums were forbidden from having their partners with them whilst giving birth, even when six people could have dinner together in a restaurant. Now, as journalist Ben Smoke points out, the mixed messaging has become even more absurd, with people still allowed to go on holiday together, but not out for dinner.
With people only allowed to purchase alcohol alongside a meal, pubs that don’t serve food will be forced to close. We all know that the consumption of food has absolutely nothing to do with the spread of the virus; eating a meal does not somehow lessen your chances of infection.
The implementation of these rules will not create safe working conditions. Instead, they will cause the public to have even less faith in the government’s ability to get us out of this pandemic with as few deaths as possible. As our faith in the government decreases, so does our patience – with hospitality workers often forced to deal with these frustrations firsthand.
A deadly imbalance.
The class hypocrisy in such rules is also striking. While bars in parliament stay open past curfew so that MPs can enjoy a drink after work, bartenders receive no such privileges. In the event that they get the virus, they aren’t even entitled to sick pay.
This hardly comes as a shock considering that the hospitality industry is largely made up of low-paid, precarious young and working-class people.
Young people have been consistently scapegoated for the rise in Covid-19 cases, at the same time that their safety has been compromised. From being locked up in their university halls of residence without food or emotional support, to the closure of many vital support services, the government has only considered young people when looking for someone to blame.
Meanwhile, the working classes have been forced to continue to go out to work in supermarkets, hospitals and factories, putting their lives and wellbeing at risk in the process – all while middle-class workers are allowed to work from the comfort and safety of their own homes. This has had very real consequences: A report by the ONS found that “deaths in working-class districts in England and Wales are twice that in the wealthiest areas”.
What we are witnessing is a deadly imbalance. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that the politicians bringing in these rules don’t behave in line with them, or believe in them. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone – of any political leaning – that does believe in all of the terms and conditions being brought in.
If no one believes that they are working, then how can we expect an industry of overworked and poorly paid staff to enforce them? How can workers be expected to impose rules members of our government themselves refuse to live by? How can workers be expected to enforce the rules of the state they have been failed by?
People before profit.
As the government continues to introduce measures that seem more focused on satisfying corporate interest than people’s safety, it becomes increasingly hard to take them seriously. Right now, bar staff are working in extremely difficult and uncomfortable conditions, with no additional support or pay. Most of them will be working for minimum wage in jobs that may not exist in a month’s time. This precarity is stressful enough without the extra pressure of having to surveil and report on your customers – or risk getting fined yourself.
Bar staff are not police and should not be expected to act like it. In order to stop putting staff in such a compromised position, it is vital that the government brings in rules that are clear, that make sense and prioritise our safety. If pubs and restaurants are breeding grounds for Covid-19, workers should not work in them, let alone police them – they should be closed, with staff paid their full wages until they are safe to reopen.
We must demand that people come before profit. We must refuse to allow the government to force the most precarious in society to risk their safety and wellbeing to keep capitalism afloat.
Liv Wynter is a writer and live artist from south-east London.