“A table for six? No, sir, that is against the Covid-19 restrictions … unless you promise that your party will discuss business, not pleasure.”
Some of London’s fanciest restaurants have discovered a loophole in the tier-2 coronavirus lockdowns restrictions designed to prevent households from mixing and thereby slow the spread of the virus.
An exemption that the government included in the rules to allow freelancers to work over lunch is being exploited by high-end restaurants encouraging up to 30 people to dine together as long as “the topic is business”.
Caprice Holdings, the restaurant empire run by multimillionaire Richard Caring, emailed loyal clients this week to invite them to make bookings that appear to break the single-household rule.
“We wish to make it clear – when the topic is business, you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule’, ie mixed households are permitted up to six guests,” the email said. “We can host up to 30 people within our private dining spaces for business meetings.”
The Cinnamon Club, popular with politicians and lobbyists due to its location near the Palace of Westminster, said: “It’s become clear that if you are coming down to our restaurants for business purposes, you can meet over lunch or dinner without the ‘single household’ restriction and this is permitted for up to six guests.”
D&D London, which owns the upmarket Quaglino’s, Coq d’Argent, the Bluebird Café and the German Gymnasium, said: “We are pleased to confirm that you can still have business meetings over lunch and dinner. Provided that the primary purpose of your booking is business, we are delighted to welcome you as usual.”
Jeremy King, co-owner of Corbin & King, which owns business crowd favourites including the Delaunay on the Strand and the Wolseley in Piccadilly, emailed favoured clients to tell them: “Whilst social occasions need to be from a single household, it has been determined that business meeting are acceptable.”
Despite restricted elevator capacity, several restaurants in the Shard and Heron towers are accepting big bookings for business lunches. Duck & Waffle, on the 40th floor of Heron Tower by Liverpool Street station, will take bookings for six for a business lunch, while Sushi Samba two floors below is happy for up to 14 people to discuss spreadsheets over lunch.
The restaurants are relying on “exception 3” in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local Covid-19 Alert Level) (Medium) Regulations 2020 Act, which states: “Exception 3 is that the gathering is reasonably necessary – a) for work purposes or for the provision of voluntary or charitable services.”
The messages appear to have worked. Many of London’s most famous restaurants, including the Ivy, part of Caring’s empire in Soho, and Le Coq d’Argent in the City, were doing a roaring trade on Friday lunchtime.
At Sexy Fish, Caring’s latest pricey fish restaurant on Berkeley Square in Mayfair, all the tables were occupied, forcing walk-ins, like reporters from the Guardian, to dine at the bar, adorned with bronze mermaids sculptures by Damien Hirst.
Perusing the menu, which includes king crab and caviar sushi at £42 a piece which can be washed down with a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne, were three groups of four who did not appear to be from the same household.
A group of four ladies dining together said they were “sort of” having a business lunch as they “are ex-colleagues” catching up. Challenged further, one of the party said she was “happy to break the rules as I know I am not going to be doing anyone any harm, otherwise I wouldn’t”.
The women said they did not book, but walked into the restaurant and were not asked by the maitre d’ if they were from separate households. The restaurant manager, who asked the Guardian reporter to leave the restaurant, said he realised that the three tables of four people broke the rules.
“We alert that to every guest and we do that on confirmation email,” he said. “We do as much as we possibly can … We are doing our absolute best, we’re doing as many precautions as possible … You can’t ask me a single question.”
There seemed to be confusion in the government about who could clarify the official position on business lunches. The Treasury suggested the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. BEIS, in turn, pointed to a higher authority.
Downing Street said most cross-household work meals were not permitted, and that they should only happen if there was no other option. But a spokesman indicated that the government was unlikely to take any action against restaurants promoting business lunches.
“We obviously encourage people to use alternatives for work meetings where possible, like Covid-secure workplaces, or through other means – virtually or on the phone,” a No 10 spokesman said. “We have set out this week why the exemption was introduced, in order to allow freelancers and others who maybe don’t have access to a Covid-secure workplace to use. But we encourage everyone to act responsibly.”