The​ slow reopening of the British hospitality sector over the past few weeks signals a re-emergence from the great closures of the last year and a half – hopefully, this time, a permanent re-emergence, though who knows? No economic sector has been hit harder by Covid-19 than hospitality, a category that officially designates hotels, restaurants and pubs, but which bleeds into other areas, such as events, weddings, venues and live entertainment. When the first lockdown began in March 2020, the output of the hospitality sector immediately fell by 90 per cent, compared to falls in retail and manufacturing of around 30 per cent. No sector has drawn so heavily on the government’s furlough scheme. Hospitality consists mostly of small and medium-sized businesses; as the second full lockdown got underway in January this year, 56 per cent of all eligible employees in the sector were furloughed, compared to 16 per cent elsewhere. Almost ten thousand pubs, clubs and restaurants failed to make it that far, while others staggered through the winter on the thinnest of margins.

It was the hospitality sector that prompted one of many controversial, not to say fateful, judgments made by the prime minister last year. In May, with infections and hospitalisations falling, political pressure began mounting for a relaxation of lockdown restrictions, not least in order to distract attention from the row that broke out at the end of that month over Dominic Cummings’s drive to Durham. On 2 June a meeting took place between Boris Johnson and various ministers at which the business secretary, Alok Sharma, presented evidence that 3.5 million jobs were at risk if the hospitality sector wasn’t reopened over the summer. ‘Christ!’ was Johnson’s reported reaction. It was a pivotal moment. From this point on, the influence of scientists and medics over policy waned, Johnson set about ditching the ‘two metre rule’ that made many hospitality businesses unviable, and Saturday, 4 July – Independence Day – was announced as the date of a grand reopening, covering everything from bars to cinemas, restaurants to galleries. By mid July, infections were on the rise again.

The atmosphere this time around is different: more cautious, especially in view of new variants, but also, thanks to the vaccines, more realistically optimistic. It may take time for the perspex screens, masks, one-way systems and all the other once alien intrusions to recede from our social worlds, but the hope is that at least we’ll be able to stroll unplanned into a crowded pub and jostle our way to the bar. The simplest pleasure, to be among strangers without having to worry about the identity of each or the dangers they might pose, has a future after all.

The pandemic has wrought the worst economic damage in the hospitality sector because it has attacked hospitality itself. Welcoming a guest into one’s home was turned into something not only risky but antisocial, indicating a lack of concern for the wider population. The household was reasserted as a rigid, impermeable social unit, along with its more futuristic partner, the bubble; for much of the past fifteen months, hospitality has been either banned or strictly regulated. Once the state is involved in deciding whom we may eat or drink with, and even what counts as a shared ‘meal’ (at one point ministers were quizzed on the official status of the Scotch egg), something fundamental has been violated. The promise now is that we might begin to claw it back. But at what cost?

The uncomfortable truth is that the crisis of hospitality has not been resolved, but merely shifted out of our eyeline. Homes, restaurants, pubs and cafés can safely reopen thanks, yes, to the vaccine, but also because national borders are being throttled. International airports have played a nodal role in this pandemic, the first airborne infection to go global in the age of jet travel. During the first wave last year, mortality rates and infection levels in cities correlated closely with their degree of international connectivity and the number of international travellers passing through them – these factors mattered far more than other spatial characteristics such as density or public transport usage. The ‘zero Covid’ strategy quickly adopted by the likes of New Zealand and Australia in March 2020, and advocated by the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party, involves the severest possible constraints on air travel.

Anyone wanting to visit New Zealand has had to wait for months for an available berth in a ‘Managed Isolation’ facility, in which they will quarantine for two weeks on arrival. In May, Australia stipulated that anyone found to have entered the country from India could face five years in jail and a A$66,000 fine. One of the political preconditions of music festivals, dinner parties and wedding discos is a rapidly expanding border infrastructure, consisting of hotels that behave like detention centres and medical testing facilities, all of it adding significant constraints and costs to international travel. This is frustrating and expensive for many of us, but worse for those separated from family, and horrifying for those with an urgent need to flee their own country. The virus is a gift to Priti Patel and every other politician seeking grounds to refuse the entry of foreigners into their country.

Some borders will become more permeable thanks to the roll-out of vaccine passports, but that technology also facilitates the setting up of other semi-permeable borders throughout society. Possession of a vaccine passport, now available in Britain via the NHS smartphone app, is not currently being proposed as a condition of entry to hospitality venues or events. But there is no guarantee that it won’t be in future, should there be a rise of infections over the autumn or winter. In an echo of the ‘hostile environment’ policy introduced by Theresa May to crackdown on ‘illegal’ immigration (which required landlords, banks, universities and even hospitals to seek evidence of migration status), vaccine passports threaten to weave borders and official identification into the fabric of everyday life. If this is what it takes to keep theatres or sporting events running, it may be the least worst option, but it comes at a cost.

Hospitality has turned out to be more precious and more fragile than we appreciated. The term derives from the Latin hospes – host, guest, stranger or foreigner – which in turn derives from hostis, meaning stranger or enemy. English derivations of these terms are everywhere: host, hospital, hostel, hospice, hotel, hostility. Hospitality is the terrain of both safety and danger. A handshake (another casualty of Covid-19) symbolises the absence of a weapon, but only because a weapon is a real possibility; members of the same household do not shake hands. By contrast, the recently deregulated hug isn’t strictly a gesture of hospitality at all. Hospitality is never without risk: it involves taking the outsider – the foreigner, the potential enemy – into one’s home as a guest. Conversely, hospitality is not truly hospitality if the host doesn’t retain some authority to exclude: to be a guest is to be invited in, to cross a threshold of some kind. In his two lectures on the question, originally given in January 1996 and published as De l’hospitalité, Jacques Derrida focused on the unavoidable ‘dilemma between, on the one hand, unconditional hospitality that dispenses with law, duty, or even politics, and, on the other, hospitality circumscribed by law and duty’. The abstract ideal of universal hospitality, which Derrida saw in the political writings of Kant, according to which any person ought to be invited in without exception, must muddle along with the concrete practices of hospitality, in which discretion and conditions are applied. The host must choose whether to treat the stranger as a guest or as an enemy.

Remove the discretion of the host, and what is left of hospitality? Either an unnegotiable barrier that treats all foreigners as enemies, or else – as Derrida saw in Kant – a universal right of entry that treats everyone as entitled to enter, but which undoes the integrity of the home or hostel as a space of refuge and safety. The principle of universal hospitality imagines a world without any borders or discrimination, but that world can flip into a mass surveillance nightmare in which there is nowhere to hide. The concept of the refuge implies that some people are shut out. Derrida was worried about the effect that the internet might have on hospitality: once private communication is routed via public infrastructure (potentially observable by the state), individuals lose the autonomy that is a precondition of being able to welcome the other in. Our homes and refuges are penetrated against our will. Digital technology renders every two-way interaction dependent on an absent third party, who can, should they wish, intervene to decide whether and how the interaction may proceed. The internet is drastically unsettling what counts as ‘my home’, Derrida argued. Twenty-five years on, millions of Zoom users know what he was talking about.

A notable effect of the pandemic has been to replace everyday hospitality with algorithms, digital and otherwise. Decisions about whom to host and whom to exclude, which stranger to approach and which to avoid, how close to stand to someone else, have been taken from us on grounds of public health. The slow return of the hospitality sector and travel have been so dependent on the affordances of digital technologies (‘track and trace’, QR codes, online bookings, online checkouts, vaccine passports) as to reinforce Derrida’s point. Hospitality loses its ambivalence, and becomes instead a procedural matter of openings and closures, in which the discretion no longer lies with the parties concerned. In such a world there are no real hosts and no real strangers, just identities to be checked: a hostile environment.

The question of whether the stranger should be treated as a friend or as a threat has resulted in novel bits of etiquette over the last year, such as the requirement to give one’s name and phone number on entering a pub, and awkward differences between friends over the assessment of risk. It has also led to a cold repurposing of hospitality facilities into tools of confinement. A spectrum now extends between the ideal of the hotel, which welcomes the stranger, and the prison, which won’t let them leave. Hotels have been requisitioned by governments as quarantine facilities and asylum detention centres. The crisis of hospitality can be measured in the rise of industrially produced, professionally managed bedrooms, whose core function is to keep the ‘guest’ separate from society. Hotel chains have joined G4S and Serco in the provision of commercial ‘bordering services’ to the state, something that predates Covid, but has been greatly accelerated by it.

There is a whole other domain of hospitality that has been brought into view by Covid-19, that is rarely conceived as such: hospitals themselves. Even before 2020, Britain’s National Health Service was its last redoubt of mass solidarity, defended (at least rhetorically) across the political divide. Its crucial characteristic, which no government would dare touch, is being ‘free at the point of use’. Part of the public outrage over the Windrush scandal in 2018 was over the fact that, thanks to the hostile environment policy, people who had made their lives in Britain and assumed they were ‘British’ were being denied or charged for hospital treatment. EU citizens in the UK have recently been informed that they must apply for ‘settled status’ by the end of June or face losing access to the NHS. Perhaps uniquely, the NHS straddles the fantasies of the liberal left and the conservative right by being both multicultural and national, a universally available refuge: a paradox. Rarely do British citizens manage to combine so much pride in their country with so much enthusiasm for immigration as when they have just been cared for by one of the 170,000 NHS staff who is not British.

The need to ‘protect our NHS’ has been one of the political mantras of 2020 and 2021. Oddly it is the threat to ‘our NHS’ – specifically, that hospitals might be overwhelmed – that has been first among the reasons given to justify lockdowns and other constraints, and not the threat to human life as such, which is just as well if you’re a government that has overseen the highest death toll in Europe and the sixth highest in the world. As the virus was first breaking across Europe and the United States, there was a lot of talk about the need to ‘flatten the curve’, that is, to lower the level of peak demand for intensive care beds to within capacity. The ‘curve-flattening’ idea was sufficiently simple and popular that Johnson adopted it to explain his government’s strategy. The idea was neat in principle: by reducing household mixing, the hospitalisation rate could be slowed, lowering its peak. Policy would be dictated by a kind of hydraulics, in which pubs, restaurants and homes closed their doors to guests, so that hospitals could keep theirs open.

The reality has been far grimmer. Among the shocking, sometimes harrowing, details in Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s Failures of State, an investigative report into the Johnson administration’s handling of the pandemic, are those confirming that the ‘curve’ was never adequately ‘flattened’ at all.* Aside from the scandalous decision to return elderly hospital patients to care homes, without necessarily testing them for Covid first, in order to free up beds, Calvert and Arbuthnott collect disturbing evidence that ambulance services were rationed, leading to a surge in the number of people dying of treatable ailments in their own homes. Some turned up at hospitals only to be sent home on the basis that they weren’t sick enough, and subsequently died. In the first six months of the pandemic, there were 59,000 ‘extra’ deaths in England and Wales, of which only 7800 occurred in hospital, while 25,800 occurred in care homes and 25,200 in people’s own homes. The failure to ‘flatten the curve’ sufficiently was also in evidence inside hospitals, where little discussed triaging tools were being used to determine the allocation of intensive care beds. One anonymous doctor is quoted as saying that, in the depths of the first wave, his hospital refused intensive care beds to anyone over 75. The mythology of the NHS as a universal refuge somehow survived, but only because such uncomfortable facts were hidden from view. The finite resource of hospital beds, which had been shrinking for decades as the role of hospitals shifted from host to service-supplier, was insufficient to provide hospitality for all when it was most needed.

The pandemic has been accompanied by a growing stack of research reports, by academics, think tanks, NGOs and quangos, on what has been learned from the great experiment – or hiatus – of the last fifteen months. ‘There can be no going back to normal,’ one side cries, while the other desperately wants to get the pre-pandemic show back on the road (hence all last summer’s talk of a ‘V-shaped recovery’). What’s most likely is that ‘normality’ will return, but with invisible costs and harms: a new wariness towards the stranger, a new attitude towards ‘home’, a new set of hidden codes determining who gains entry and who does not. How we undo these innovations, and whether it’s even possible to do so, remains to be seen.

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