Manchester hospitality takes on the Government over 'substantial meal' rule

A conglomerate of leaders in the Manchester hospitality industry successfully forced the Government to ditch the substantial meal requirement for bars and pubs when it was drawing up its 'roadmap out of lockdown'.

Now Sacha Lord, Manchester’s night-time economy advisor, is challenging the Government to produce evidence to justify delaying the reopening of the hospitality industry.

The Government's roadmap planned for restaurants and pubs to reopen on 12 April, but for outside eating and drinking only with table service and apps to minimise contact between customers and staff. 

Pubs and restaurants with no or limited outside space will have to wait until at least 17 May to reopen, a move which commentators fear will put many out of business.

This measure actively discriminates against, and unfairly impacts, the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of our society

It was been revealed today that a High Court action brought by Sacha Lord representing many from the industry is the reason that the Government was not allowed to reintroduce the substantial meal rule (also termed ‘Scotch egg-gate') when the roadmap was finalised.

The lack of a substantial meal rule has already been widely reported, but it is only now that it can be confirmed that a Manchester legal challenge was behind the policy change.

Is the substantial meal restriction discriminatory?

The original challenge was led by Mr Lord and supported by the British Beer and Pub Association, the Night Time Industries Association, JW Lees, Joseph Holt Brewery, Robinsons Brewery, Hawthorn Leisure, New River Pub Company, the San Carlo Group, Living Ventures, Albert’s Schloss, Wood Restaurant, 20 Stories, Gusto, Evuna and more.

It claimed that the substantial meal restriction was discriminatory against certain sections of society. Judges agreed with Mr Lord that it could be argued that this was the case.

The rule was widely criticised by the industry as contradictory and confusing. Memorably, Michael Gove claimed that two Scotch eggs would count as a starter, just a day after Environment Secretary George Eustice suggested a single egg would count as a substantial meal.

Back home in Manchester, Common Bar was the centre of controversy when Greater Manchester Police told staff the 'massive' slices of pizza being served didn’t 'fit the substantial food brief'. It then turned out there was no set definition of substantial food issued to the police. The bar was eventually allowed to continue serving. 

Recently, Confidentials spoke to a number of northern hospitality professionals about how the flip-flopping over the rules has affected their businesses and their mental health.  

When deciding to allow the High Court challenge, the judge stated, "It is arguable that the there is no scientific evidence to support the distinction that has been drawn between the service of alcohol in accordance with the Table Meal exemption and serving alcohol in other circumstances that comply with Government guidance on reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission."

The judge also decided it was arguable that a policy that permits drinking alcohol with a meal in licensed premises but does not permit such premises to open if they do not serve a substantial table meal discriminates against people from a non-white or BAME background.

The Secretary of State filed his defence on 25 February, three weeks after the judge's comments, and three days after the roadmap plans were finalised.

Sacha Lord celebrates victory

Mr Lord said it was a 'landmark victory' for the hospitality industry.

"We are pleased with this judgment and that the court case compelled the government to remove the substantial meal requirement in their recent roadmap.

"We have continually stated that this measure actively discriminates against, and unfairly impacts, the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of our society, and was lacking in scientific evidence to support it.

"We will continue to work with those most affected across the night-time economy and hospitality sectors to ensure all measures imposed on the industries going forward are fair, not only to the operators and businesses struggling to survive but to the general public.

"My legal team and I are already in discussions regarding the lack of evidence to justify the delay of the reopening of hospitality compared with non-essential retail and this is an area we will be updating on in the weeks to come."

Sacha Lord Marchionne02
Sacha Lord, Manchester's night-time economy advisor

The High Court case means there is now pressure on the Government to produce detailed scientific evidence behind its policy decisions, in particular to show why pubs and restaurants are considered to be riskier than non-essential retail. The hope is that the reopening of indoor hospitality will be brought forward.

Mr Lord said that any court costs recovered will be donated equally between Hospitality Action and the Greater Manchester Mayor's Charity. 

Read next: Never mind Ramsay, Northern restaurants speak out

Read again: Roadmap out of lockdown: What's the picture for hospitality?