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Pub group Marston’s calls for looser visa restrictions for staff

Marston’s new chief executive has joined calls from the pub industry for a relaxation of visa restrictions for hospitality staff as the sector battles severe labour shortages.

Andrew Andrea, who took over at the pub company this month, said on Monday that although Marston’s “had labour under control”, just under a tenth of its 187 pubs were understaffed and an easing of visa rules for kitchen staff in particular “would be very welcome”.

Andrea is the latest of several pub bosses to call on the government to loosen post-Brexit immigration rules to help hospitality businesses recruit staff.

The pro-Brexit JD Wetherspoon chair Tim Martin said in June that hospitality would benefit from “some sort of preferential visa system for EU workers”. Clive Watson, executive chair of City Pub Group, which has a vacancy rate of about 10 per cent, said that offering temporary visas was a “no-brainer”.

“We had about 400 European staff who went back [home] during Covid but very few came back. We tried but they don’t see Britain as a welcoming place at the moment,” he added.

Since reopening after lockdowns, pub and restaurant businesses have been inundated with record demand but many have been unable to serve customers because of the lack of staff.

The sector has traditionally been more reliant than others on European workers, many of whom returned to their home countries following Brexit, while hundreds of local staff left hospitality businesses after long periods of closure during the pandemic.

CGA, the industry data tracker, said 1,000 hospitality sites had closed since July because of supply chain and staffing challenges.

Andrea said the problem was most acute during the “pingdemic” when staff were forced to isolate at home if they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus. In August, Marston’s had to close 30 pubs and limit trading at 50 others.

He said, however, that the situation had improved but that “kitchens are where the pressure is tightest”. There had not been a big influx of applications since the end of the government’s furlough scheme, he added.

His comments came as Marston’s reported that trading between the end of July and beginning of October, when social distancing restrictions were fully removed, had been 102 per cent of the comparable period in 2019. This was boosted by a cut in VAT on food eaten out, which Andrea said had bumped revenues by an extra 4 per cent.

Overall sales in the year to October 2 were £402m, a 22 per cent drop compared with the year before. Marston’s said its pubs were able to open for only 54 per cent of the possible trading days in 2020.

The company has undergone significant changes during the pandemic. In May 2020, it sold its brewing arm into a £780m joint venture with the drinks conglomerate Carlsberg and in December it took over operations at 156 pubs previously run by the Welsh brewer Brains.

The company rejected a £700m offer from the US private equity company Platinum this year. Andrea said it had not received any subsequent takeover approaches.

Douglas Jack, an analyst at Peel Hunt, noted that Marston’s “market positioning in the new normal of hybrid commuting has improved owing to its limited exposure to London and other city centres” and that the sector was “ripe for corporate activity”.

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