Coronavirus: Delicious smells but empty benches spell uncertainty for the winter ahead | Business News


There’s a colour and a life to Mercato Metropolitano.

The smell is simply delicious. But too many of the benches are empty.

On a usual Thursday lunchtime this food market and community hub in South London might expect to see just shy of 3,000 customers popping in for a bite and a drink.

Jobs scheme quite small compared to other COVID-19 measures

Looking around today I’d estimate there’s been more like 300.

That’s bad news not just for the business that runs this premises and its 1,600 employees, but also for the tens of small independent caterers, chefs, arts groups and vendors that lease space here.

In many ways the chancellor’s measures today were aimed at businesses just like these.

The sector specific extension in VAT cuts for hospitality and leisure industries certainly went down well, and those businesses that have taken COVID specific loans were pleased to hear the payback periods are being extended from six to ten years.

But the chancellor’s key focus today was on retaining jobs that are viable.

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The Treasury no longer wants to be propping up posts that sadly won’t be able to sustain themselves unaided, but it doesn’t want the hardest hit industries to be decimated beyond recovery once this crisis is over.

That fear has certainly been felt here.

“As an industry we’ve been through so much already,” explains Carrie Bowers, head of people at Mercato Metropolitano.

She and her team express relief at the announcement of the Jobs Support Scheme, which will see the government topping up the wages of staff kept on on a part-time basis.

It’s certainly something of a safety bracket for the winter but it doesn’t mean they’ll rest easy

“As long as things continue as they are we would be OK.

“If there are further lockdown measures imposed, even if they are only short term, that could have a very catastrophic impact.”

This venue crosses the hospitality, events and night time economy sectors.

Emma Freira at Mercato Metropolitano  in south east London 24/9/20
‘I’m very worried,’ says Emma Freira

They are all sectors that have been crippled, all sectors that the chancellor wants to survive the pandemic.

At full capacity this market can hold 35,000 people – crammed onto benches, leaning on bars, standing up with their pizzas and beers.

With social distancing and the rule of six it can now only hold 1,000 at any one time.

The 10pm hospitality curfew introduced by the prime minster this week was another major blow.

It was mentioned by everyone here without exception.

“It’s terrible but we’re going to do it,” says Andrea Rasca, the market’s founder

“They are punishing hospitality and we don’t understand why.”

The smaller vendors tended to use less direct language but the sentiment was there – while none would reject help, few thought it would be enough to counter the drop in footfall and tightened restrictions.

Sieng Vantran at Mercato Metropolitano  in south east London 24/9/20
Sieng Vantran thinks there should be specific measures for different industries

“I’m very worried” says Emma Freira , one of the small vendors working for organic supplier That’s Food.

She says while the measures may be helpful they don’t fix the deeper challenges they face.

“We’ve been worried since the beginning of the COVID situation,” she says.

“I don’t think it changes anything for us. It’s the same state we have been in since the beginning.”.

It’s tough and uncertain for people working at the market.

One barman says that although the Jobs Support Scheme might save his role, “I don’t want to work part time, I want to work all the hours I should be”.

There are arts groups here too – another industry another struggling to hold on.

Sieng Vantran is the founder of Theartry, a live performance and social purpose group based out of this market.

He’s had to recreate the space to accommodate an audience of just 88 down from 200 and the 10pm curfew is particularly tough.

“The band would normally just be getting going,” he says.

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He admits he’s “massively” worried.

“I don’t think [the measures] help new businesses, as much as existing businesses and we’re quite a new business.

“I think it’s a one size catch-all type thing I think that there should be specific measures for different industries.”

Everyone here says it’s going to be a tough winter ahead.

A handful of vendors have already had to close – even when Mercato Metropolitano dropped all rent charges for a period.

The resilience of this industry will get them so far, and more government support will help – but survival is, for many, by no means certain.


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