Brexit fall-out severely impacting Cumbria’s tourism industry

Suzanne Caldwell

Business leaders in Cumbria are calling on the Government to act to save its tourism industry which has been hit by a lack of foreign workers.

Some in the hospitality sector fear they will not be able to reopen this week, or lose out on trade, due to the staffing shortfall.

Many hotels, as well as restaurants and other holiday-focused businesses, have been engaging with Cumbria Chamber of Commerce expressing fears that they will be hampered due to a perfect storm of the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy exacerbated by COVID.

Cumbria Chamber is making a plea alongside hoteliers for the Government to address the issue through more flexible arrangements for EU-national workers, as well as promoting the UK abroad as a welcome place to work.

The latest national figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that of the 813,000 decrease in payroll employees since March 2020, some 355,000 can be attributed to employees working in the accommodation and food service activities sector.

Meanwhile, the number of job adverts have risen sharply in the sector across Cumbria during the past three months. Some of the UK’s main jobs sites have as many as 25,000 hospitality vacancies nationwide – more than 1,000 in Cumbria alone – with chefs being a particular area of focus.

Suzanne Caldwell, managing director of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “What we’re seeing is nothing short of a perfect storm which could really put the brakes on the anticipated post-lockdown recovery boom that’s desperately needed by Cumbria’s hospitality sector.”

The chamber is calling for Britain’s doors to be opened more widely and flexibly, enabling more, particularly short-term, employees from abroad than the current arrangements allow.

Ms Caldwell said: “A number of issues are aligning and the Government needs to act quickly, provide some direction, leadership and support to those whose businesses are suffering through no fault of their own – 43% of the national jobs lost or furloughed throughout lockdown have been in hospitality.

“And many employers are telling us they’ve lost staff during the pandemic to a variety of other industries, such as retail and care homes, as well as to opportunities in the EU. Many of these staff have no plans to return.

“It’s worryingly common to hear from hotels and restaurants who haven’t been able to fill positions they’ve been advertising for nearly three months. The Government needs to re-engage with the EU, show potential workers abroad that they’re wanted here and look at how countries like Australia are considerably more flexible to people on six-month and year-long work visas.”

Andrea Whigham, a hospitality consultant based in North Cumbria, feels strongly that the Government needs to create a direct replacement for the Erasmus scheme and introduce a youth, or short term employment mobility visa.

She said: “It feels like real carnage and it is the most challenging time the sector has ever faced, with people not returning to their roles after furlough.

“Some of Cumbria’s larger hotels previously relied on up to 50% of their junior staff coming from abroad and they’re struggling to replace them. This is a problem affecting all employers, from larger hotel chains in the Lake District to smaller independents.

“What makes the issue worse is students also can’t guarantee they’ll be coming back to fill summer positions . It is very common to hear hoteliers who have several roles they’ve been advertising and unable to fill for three months.”

Lesley Wheeler, co-owner for 34 years of small hotel, restaurant and bar The Bay Horse Hotel and Restaurant in Ulverston, is hopeful the Government’s Kickstart scheme will help, but she said: “We are facing making decisions to only partially open the business, disappointing many of our customers.

“People say to us that we should pay higher wages, but they would then find our prices rising considerably.

“We have relied heavily on overseas staff in the past. Now we are unable to access this workforce and, despite our best attempts to ‘recruit locally’, still haven’t found appropriate staff.

“At a time when we should be stepping back we find ourselves potentially facing a working day stretching from 6.30am to midnight, seven days a week.”