THE GOVERNMENT’S SUGGESTED CURES ARE MORE DAMAGING THAN THE VIRUS

MM’s Founder Andrea Rasca, photo by Mark Arrigo for Monocle

For the best part of this year, our societies have been torn apart by this COVID-19 pandemic. It has thrown challenges to all businesses and all people in almost every country around the world.

My home country, Italy was the first in Europe to see how devastating this virus could be. We all remember those images at the end of February and beginning of March of crowded hospitals, patients lying on the floor suffering, doctors struggling to cope.

You would not believe that the same country seven months on is a beacon of hope for Europe. While Spain, France and the UK are seeing a massive surge in cases, Italy’s ‘second wave’ has been gentler so far.

And yet right now the country perhaps has the greatest sense of normality of all its neighbours. The restaurants and bars are open and thriving again in the late summer-early autumn warmth, and so far, cases have remained at such a low proportion of the population, that in the UK it has not been designated necessary to quarantine on return from Italy.

All the while, in the last week we have seen the UK Government announced tighter restrictions that will greatly impact businesses and people’s livelihoods, while doing almost nothing to improve the escalating health crisis.

To me, the latest national measures seem vague and do not necessarily show a correlation between the problem and the solution. They are hardly stricter than previous local lockdown rules brought into Greater Manchester, Lancashire, the North East and Leicester amongst other areas, which seem to have had little to no impact on the spread of the virus, but a great impact on people’s livelihood.

It is becoming very uneasy to navigate in such muddy waters and I wonder whether there is any understanding in central Government of the pandemic and the impact of their knee jerk, poorly conceived reactions that do not think beyond next week.

Mercato Mayfair

These measures are nothing more than a plaster when the real problems need forensic surgery, and they come down to failures going back months.

Where Italy slowly lifted restrictions, enforced mask wearing and continued to encourage remote working — the UK did not take as methodical approach.

As someone in the hospitality industry, yes, I was pleased when we could re-open in July; but to go from almost complete lockdown to fully opening almost all bars and restaurants overnight was a challenge — particularly as mask wearing in public spaces was not made compulsory until weeks later.

But most importantly, it was not right to take such a sudden rather than staged approach without a working testing and tracking system. Over the summer our increased testing capacity helped to keep cases down, but following the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the campaign to get people back to their offices, the return of schools and now universities, it seems there was no preparation for the inevitable increase in cases that would come beyond that.

This week, the Government’s contact tracing app finally went live. It is a positive step but one that Italy and others implemented months ago. It has been key to controlling the spread of the virus and protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Now it comes perhaps too late — with thousands of cases a day, including hundreds at universities that have only just returned.

The Government is even now talking about students being forced to stay on their campuses over the Christmas holidays. Is there no understanding of the mental health implications and social isolation for both students and their family members, to be talking about this?

A migration of hundreds of thousands of young people — the demographic that is spreading the virus most virulently, according to latest figures — to cities across the country, was inevitably going to cause a rise in cases. And yet it was allowed to happen before a working contact tracing system was in place and now there is no plan for how those same young people can remain safely connected to their families, at a time they are perhaps living away from home for the first time.

MM Caffe in MMayfair Garden

Similarly, the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, while it did help to get the economy moving — with 64 million discounted meals claimed in August, was ultimately a purely commercial move that did nothing to benefit our society — it simply gave an opportunity to fast food restaurants to sell their products at a reduced price.

Yes, it gave some relief to small businesses, but it was nothing but a short-term fix.

What happens next for those businesses who saw a short-term boost in revenues, but will perhaps lose even more closing at 10pm each night? Perhaps had the Government waited to bring this scheme in until after its contact tracing app was in full working order, it would have been a safer move to make.

By just thinking in the short-term, we will only see more collateral damage to business, people and families, and we risk fuelling a food insecurity that is already spiralling out of control. As Marcus Rashford highlighted as part of his growing campaign to tackle this issue, the number of people in the UK living with food insecurity has risen by 250% in lockdown.

At Mercato Metropolitano, we have for years offered a £5 lunch with all of our trading partners. It means we can provide nutritious and affordable food to our community as part of our commitment to ensuring everyone has a ‘right to food’.

The Government should have been less focused on “getting the economy moving” — only for it to inevitably slow down again a month later with a rise in cases — and instead should have incentivised businesses who were supporting their community to eat well and eat affordably.

Other measures aimed at helping businesses are, likewise, nothing but a drop in the ocean and we need to remember that in the European Economic Area, the UK’s GDP is one of the most badly impacted with a drop of over 21%.

So far, the Government’s short-term ‘cures’ are doing far more damage than the virus itself. They are causing uncertainty, confusion and distress to people’s livelihoods. Changing the rules every two weeks and continuing with this ‘plaster’ approach, without addressing the real issues, will hardly yield the desired results.

I love London and the UK and we will continue to play our part to keep the community alive. We will continue to implement safety measures at both of our sites; wearing masks and tracking every person who enters our markets. But we are also passionate about doing right by our community. “Social” distancing is a wrong message to send at a time people are isolated and scared. “Physical” distancing, yes — we absolutely support these precautions — but socially? We have to think of the less fortunate, and keep on helping them, feeding them, as we have always done and will continue to do.

I only wish that Government had the same focus.

What I am calling on them to do is to stop implementing ‘quick fix’ measures that will have little impact on the spread of the virus and will only lead us to a second full lockdown, and look at the structural failures that have led this country to the highest death toll in Europe.

As we enter the winter months, our most vulnerable citizens are at serious risk once again, not just from coronavirus, but winter flu and other diseases that will have treatments delayed because of COVID-19 hospitalisations; from increased unemployment and the resulting increase in food insecurity that comes from it; and from social isolation as we spend our darkest months indoors.

The solutions are complex, yes, but when you look at Italy we can see it did not have to be this way. I can only hope that moving forward this Government begins to look to the next 10 years and not just the next 10 days, when considering how we beat this pandemic.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues