It’s the hottest day of the year so far and Fabio Teixeira is feeling the heat. The sun is shining, bookings are flooding in at his 190-cover restaurant, The Banc in Tottenham, and energy levels are high. But amidst the buzz of reopening post-lockdown, there’s a creeping sense of anxiety. Every time his phone rings, his heart sinks - will it be another ping?
Teixeira hasn’t received one himself, but assumes it’s only a matter of time. Among his 65-person workforce, pinging - being told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace app - has become an almost daily occurrence. Last week, a third of his staff were told to self-isolate for 10 days, including three out of eight runners and his four most experienced chefs.
For Teixeira, the fallout has been exhausting. 16 hour days have become the norm, he hasn’t had a day off in three weeks and he regularly finds himself standing in to clear tables, pick-up orders and serve food when waiting staff numbers are short. He enjoys meeting customers, but filling in means he doesn’t have time to keep on top of the back-of-house work, which needs urgent addressing. He had 200 customer cancellations in three days last week following pings after the Euros final and revenue has been down by 25 per cent since the end of May.
“We’re barely breaking even - we can’t afford to keep losing staff and customers like this,” he says. He and his team are on their knees so Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s near-decision to swerve the isolation rules as part of a “pilot” last weekend felt like salt in an already agonising wound. “Reading that news made us feel like we needn’t have bothered and it was all for nothing.”
Unfortunately, Teixeira is one of thousands feeling the effects of the capital’s growing pingmageddon. Since London began its grand post-lockdown reopening, a second pandemic has has been building in its wake: the so-called “pingdemic” arising from growing numbers of people being ordered to self-isolate after coming into contact with positive cases of Covid. Roughly 1.7 million people in the UK are believed to be currently isolating after being notified by the app or contacted by Test and Trace, with complaints of food shortages, transport delays and scores of school closures. Last week, the Metropolitan line had to close after control room staff were pinged.
Covid cases are rising - the pingdemic is a reflection of that. Still, it’s a blunt instrument and for small businesses, the effects can be crippling after a year that’s seen so many already on the brink of collapse. According to trade body Hospitality UK, up to 20 per cent of the industry’s workforce are currently isolating, with staff shortages leading to burnout, financial losses and some businesses going under. Last week, hospitality giant Greene King announced it was to close 33 pubs and many top restaurants including The Rochelle Canteen and Cafe Deco have been forced to shut up shop for weeks at a time while staff isolate at home, despite negative tests and no symptoms.
“It’s like hospitality snake and ladders,” says Charlie Gilkes, co-founder of Inception Group, who had to close three of his 11 bars and clubs for 10 days due to staff being pinged. “Just as we climb the ladder of opening up, along comes a great big snake for staffing. Lockdown has turned into shutdown.”
Across the capital, it’s not just hospitality venues seeing their lights turned out by the rising Covid pingmageddon. “Freedom Day has turned into closure day,” said composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber last week on cancelling the opening of his new production of Cinderella caused by “the blunt instrument that is the Government’s isolation guidance”.
His heartfelt comments highlight a wider sense of desperation across London’s West End, which had been relying on a bumper summer after almost 18 months boarded up. In many cases, the pingdemic has simply compounded already existing staffing issues caused by Brexit and workers abandoning face-to-face industries like the arts during lockdown. Chiswick Playhouse recently saw the writers of new musical From Here forced to step in and perform after cast members were pinged last-minute. Meanwhile Kenneth Branagh’s new show The Browning Version, Hairspray starring Michael Ball and Les Dennis, and The Prince of Egypt are among the hit shows cancelled this month due to cast and crew getting pinged, and TV shows Bridgerton, Matilda and Game of Thrones spin-off House of The Dragon have been hit by similar delays to filming.
For many, these closures and delays come as a blow to business owners hoping to rely on London’s summer tourist season. “It’s a nightmare - at one point we were three people away from closing,” explains a manager at a major tourist attraction. Even if they have enough staff, customers are cancelling-last minute because they’ve been told to isolate, or they can’t get there because buses or trains are down.
Transport for London says more than 300 members of non-office-based staff are currently self-isolating and transport unions warned last week there would be “dire consequences” across the country after a “surge” in pings among control room staff also disrupted the Piccadilly and District lines. These consequences are already being in homes and workplaces where employees rely on income from face-to-face industries and employers are often being left with difficult decisions: ignore the rules and risk their employees’ health, or do the right thing by the government and risk going under altogether.
“The pingdemic is causing more concern than the pandemic,” says Emma Stones, arts programmer for the Garden Museum in Lambeth. For someone whose job is to plan ahead, the current isolation rules have made her job next-to impossible. She’s spent the last three quarters of a year planning a children’s festival for 500 people next month. “I haven’t even let myself think about what I’ll do if we have to move that online.”
The same agony applies in the wedding and events industry, which often hangs around a single day. Debbie Marks, founder of luxury event decor company Qube, says she’s already had six “panic” calls from event companies whose entire workforces have been taken out by Test and Trace. “I’ve heard stories of brides and grooms, caterers, venue staff and other suppliers all being pinged on the morning - what do you do if your whole team goes down?” asks Andri Benson, a London-based wedding planner who says she’s staying at home for everything except work post Freedom Day as she can’t afford to risk getting pinged.
The risk is even higher now people are opting for smaller weddings, she explains: “small teams mean there’s a potential for 50 to 100 per cent of your team getting wiped out.” Photographers, caterers and florists are having to call in back-ups, but this is costly and often difficult during a summer crammed with two years’ worth of weddings. “As if we haven’t been through enough already.”
For those just starting out in their careers, this impact can hit even harder. “You never know which opportunity or audition can change your career,” says drama school graduate Matt Wake, 22, who recently missed his biggest audition yet after being told to self-isolate. Artist Layla Andrews, 24, from Brixton recently had to postpone the launch night of her solo show, Ahzun, at Hackney’s Old Bank Vault after a staff member tested positive. Her previous exhibition was cancelled as the country went into lockdown in March 2020 so she had been preparing for this month’s show as her big comeback. Mercifully, this month’s show has been extended through to August, but “so much hard work and effort goes into organising exhibition launches,” she says. “It was horrible telling people not to come for a second time.”
On top of the lost opportunities there can be major financial costs. “We’re a small business,” says Lori De Mori, co-owner of Haggerston’s much-loved Towpath Café. “We’re able to tuck our wings in, but the industry is on its knees and it’s getting one last whip of the scorpion’s tail.” Kristina Loudon, director of the capital’s Street Theatre company, says she’s lost £1,000 in the last month due to pings and Gilkes estimates he lost £200,000 in revenue over the 10 days his three venues had to be shut.
For some, this is forcing them to make heartbreaking decisions. “There is a very real possibility that we will have to close premises and considerably reduce our offering to paying members,” says Lee Matthews, managing director of gym giant Fitness First, speaking of a wider state of ping-related devastation in the fitness industry, exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the sector’s staff are in their early twenties. Barry’s Bootcamp London co-founder Sandy Macaskill calls the growing pingdemic “very concerning” - August 16 still feels like a long time away when staff are constantly getting told to isolate - while Frame co-founder Joan Murphy says 33 of her studios’ 600 classes were cancelled in July due to pinging. She adds that freelance instructors, 25-35 year-olds who’ve only had a single jab, and female employees worried about the vaccine’s effect on fertility are bearing the brunt.
Others are having to let staff go. “It was very, very difficult,” says Teixeira of having to lay-off 10 of his precious staff, many of whom have children to support. “These people become part of the family - to let them go is really tough.”
So what’s the solution? “At the very least there should be help for businesses to cover wages for isolating staff,” says Max Tobias, co-founder of The Dusty Knuckle bakery, which is “close to breaking point” after being forced to close its kitchen in Dalston this week due to too many staff being pinged. He believes the government’s “measly” £90-a-week offering for isolating staff is a “dangerous incentive” to ignore the rules, given so few businesses have the cash reserves in place to cover wages after the last year.
Gilkes and many business leaders are advocating for a “test and release” scheme, whereby pinged workers who test negative can get back to work immediately. It would seemingly make sense, especially as Towpath’s co-owner Laura Jackson says she was told outright no-one would check up on her to see if she’s self-isolating. The temptation to delete the app or turn off contact-tracing is a strong one - a recent survey found 30 per cent of NHS Covid app users have done so already. “But,” Jackson’s business partner De Mori adds: “We want to do what is ethically correct to take care of our customers and our community.”
For Teixeira, it’s about clinging on. People in this business have a passion - the “pressure” of responding to real-world events is what hospitality is all about. He and his fellow business leaders have been forced into the longest game of snakes and ladders of their lives over the last 16 months. The questions now is: how much longer until it ends?