Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker audio

Waiting at the bar

Waiting at the bar

British pubs and restaurants have reopened after a long lockdown. But can they find anyone to serve us?


Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today: the crisis in the hospitality industry and how one man has changed his mind on the importance of EU workers. 


“We are collectively telling, telling cafes, bars, pubs, and restaurants, to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can and not to open tomorrow.”

Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference, 20 March 2020

That was March 2020 when prime minister Boris Johnson called for last orders in the hospitality industry. A few days later, he announced the first of three national lockdowns.

Restaurants and pubs were the first to close and the last to re-open, and they’re struggling to find their feet again. Because even when they were allowed to be open, there was of course, strict social distancing and the 10pm curfew…

“It’s utterly stupid… because what you’ve got at the moment, Ian, is you got 3.2 million hospitality workers trying their very best… and what they’re doing is making those people redundant at 10pm or so in the evening and turning everyone out into the streets.”

Tim Martin speaking on Sky News

That’s Tim Martin… you may not have heard of him, but you’ve probably had a drink in one of his pubs… he’s the boss of Wetherspoons. 

And although you may have recently been enjoying a drink inside a Wetherspoons after 10pm, Tim Martin has a new problem on his hands… finding and recruiting staff.  

At the end of May, across the country, 971 jobs at Wetherspoons were up for grabs. But finding staff isn’t just a problem for Tim Martin, it’s the same across the entire industry. There’s a huge shortfall of waiters, chefs and bar staff. 

So the question is: where did the workers go?


“Well the impact of the pandemic continues to affect jobs, the latest figures show that the UK unemployment rate has risen to its highest level for more than three years.”

Huw Edwards, BBC News

In 2020 alone, 660,000 hospitality jobs were lost.

Now you might be thinking, why weren’t these jobs protected by the furlough scheme? Well Rishi Sunak’s decision to extend furlough back in November came a little too late.

“The government will continue to help pay people’s wages, up to 80 per cent of the normal amount.”

Rishi Sunak speaking in parliament

By the time of his announcement, the lockdowns, the 10pm curfew and strict social distancing had already made pubs and restaurants less viable… forcing them to make tough decisions and close their shutters.

“This time we were in a position where we’re having to tell people that they’re going to lose their jobs because we simply weren’t allowed by law to open.”

A nightclub owner speaking to BBC News

For the Wetherspoon staff left on furlough, many decided to look for different jobs or head home all together… back to other European countries. 

But now that everything’s opening up again, why is Tim Martin finding it so difficult to get his staff back?

Well, one word: Brexit.


“If we leave the customs union on the 31st October, Wetherspoons will bring the price of beer down to an unbelievable low.”

Tim Martin speaking in an interview with The Sun

Tim Martin was a staunch supporter of the “Vote Leave” campaign. Back in 2016, he donated £200,000 in support of Brexit. 

He claimed leaving the EU would give the UK greater economic freedom. But he hadn’t imagined that it would come with a high price tag. 

Before Covid-19, EU workers made up a huge chunk of the hospitality industry. But now that they’ve returned home because of the pandemic, travel restrictions and new immigration policies, it’s really difficult for them to come back.

“This is the first time in nearly 40 years where the British government will be in control and will determine its own immigration policy and will also be able to determine the type of system that it will be in control of.”

Priti Patel, Home Secretary

And because of this, Tim Martin has changed his mind and is reportedly asking for a “more liberal immigration system”.


But it’s not just Brexit that’s causing the shortage. On top of low pay, working standards are notoriously poor in the hospitality industry. 

“To some extent we deserve this because when things were going really well, we did not look after our staff.”

Restaurant owner speaking to Euronews

Workers have reassessed what matters to them in the pandemic. They don’t want to work the long, unsociable hours for relatively low pay. They can get a better deal elsewhere. 

And so to entice workers, restaurant and pub owners have been offering gift vouchers to customers who recommend people for jobs… and even hefty recruitment bonuses to current staff who fill roles. 

What’s clear is that the whole industry is probably facing a change. Pay might need to rise and there might need to be more job security if the staff shortage problem is going to be fixed.

That “unbelievably” cheap pint which Tim Martin was promising? He might have to spend the money on his workers instead. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.

Book, listen, read