I would like to start by congratulating my Hon. Friend the Member for North Devon and the Hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth for securing this important debate this afternoon.
Yesterday marked a year to the day since the Prime Minister announced that this country would be going into our first lockdown. It was an opportunity for us to reflect and remember all those who unfortunately were taken before their time by this awful virus, and to send our continued condolences to their loved ones. It was also an opportunity to look back and thank all those acts of heroism, compassion and strength that we have witnessed this last year.
This debate today gives us all another opportunity to focus in on a sector that has been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic – the hospitality sector.
It was one of the disheartening reminders throughout the last year of the impact that Covid19 was having on our communities and lives, beyond the infections, hospitalisations and deaths, to see empty streets, boarded up pubs, chairs stacked on tables in restaurants and signs discouraging visitors and residents to our high streets.
One of the reasons residents in Hastings and Rye love our area so much is the throng of energy and activity that normally fills our streets, music venues, restaurants and pubs. From festivals to jazz nights, bonfire parades to our Jack-in-the-Green carnival. There is always something going on, a band to listen to, a new restaurant menu to sample, an artist’s exhibition to see or pop-up attraction to visit.
All this came to a juddering halt last March. The streets remain empty, the pubs are closed and the music has stopped.
But one thing that local people have shown is a grit, a strength, a will that says together as one community we will get through this, we will come back stronger, and this summer our bands will be playing our jugs of beer frothing, our senses tantalized by the enticing aromas of our restaurants and our hearts lifted by that familiar scene of our streets filled once again.
This Government has done a great deal to support our hospitality sector with business rate holidays, VAT cuts, grants and loans, the furlough scheme, and we are doing more to encourage visitors back with the new Welcome Back Fund and for Hastings in particular the HighStreet TaskForce. Is this enough on its own? No. As the Vice-Chair for the APPG on Tourism and Hospitality I called for the VAT cut to last another year to next Spring, and I would have liked the Business Rates holiday extend to then as well. I do hope my Honourable Friends in the Treasury will reconsider these proposals when they are due to expire later this summer.
However, there is something we can all do in this House to support our hospitality sector again as it slowly reopens on the 12th of April. We can be champions for our areas to encourage visitors and residents to have the confidence to get back to our town centres, to the pub gardens, to purchase the restaurant takeaway and support our local businesses. For that is what is needed now, as the vaccine rollout continues at pace, we can have confidence that our hospitality venues and high streets are safe places to be, and we have nothing to fear by going out to support our local businesses.
As we have all come together during these lockdowns to support our NHS, we now all need to come together to support our businesses and especially our hospitality sector. So my final words are directly to residents in Hastings and Rye – yes this summer will still feel very different from those we are used to, but it will be better than the lockdown we have just been through, so lets get out there when the guidance and rules allow, and get the music playing, the streets thronging and the drink flowing and support our fantastic hospitality sector this summer.