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My pingdemic diary of despair! One cafe owner reveals how his profits have been devoured

When Mike Padgham bought a Scarborough cafe bar in June 2019, it was his first foray into the hospitality sector. 

He and son Jordan, 26, the manager, were full of excitement as they recruited staff and refurbished The Hideout. But nine months later, the Padghams were forced to shut as the first national lockdown took hold. Within weeks they had furloughed all their employees and taken out a £50,000 ‘bounce back’ loan. 

When restrictions on indoor dining were lifted in May, they hoped to be able to get back on track. But the curse of the NHS Covid-19 app has since cost them £13,500. Mike, 65, tells Fiona Parker how the ‘pingdemic’ wreaked havoc on his business.

Fearing the next ping: Mike Padgham the owner of The Hideout cafe in Scarborough who had to close for after four staff were pinged

Sunday, June 27: Our first employee is ‘pinged’ at around 5.30pm. He is a waiter who had been walking home from his shift. We have about 20 employees who work from either 8am to 4pm or 4pm to 10pm, with 11pm closing times on Friday and Saturday. He rings Jordan and my son tells the other staff. Some carry on working as normal but others are anxious that they might have caught the virus. I oversee the financial side of the business while Jordan spends more time in the restaurant. 

We are in no doubt that our waiter has to self-isolate. He will receive statutory sick pay on top of holiday pay he accrued while on furlough. His absence will have little effect on service but I have a sinking feeling about what is to come… The Hideout survived the pandemic but will it survive the pingdemic? 

Monday, June 28, AM: My fears are confirmed when two more front-of-house staff are pinged. Given that ten employees are usually on shift at any one time, our team is reduced by a fifth. Finding new recruits isn’t easy. The pandemic has drained the economy of hospitality workers, who got fed up waiting for restaurants and bars to reopen. One of our chefs left to work as a delivery driver. A team leader got a supermarket job. We have been looking for new staff since April but there are no quick fixes that can resolve today’s crisis. 

Monday, June 28, PM: Jordan and I discuss what to do. We don’t have enough employees to cover every shift for the next six days. It is heartbreaking to think we might have to close again. We decide to cut our opening hours instead. Around 60pc of our takings are made during the evening shift, so breakfast and lunch is sacrificed for dinner. We agree that for the next six days The Hideout will open from 4pm, with normal service resuming on Monday, July 5. 

A message to self-isolate displayed on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app

A message to self-isolate displayed on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app

Tuesday, June 29: The Hideout’s Facebook account is used to let customers know of our change in opening hours. A note is also pinned on the cafe’s front door. But as not everyone has seen the Facebook post, several people only find out we are closed when they turn up. We also have dozens of bookings that can no longer go ahead, so we call each customer to tell them what has happened. Everyone seems supportive but I’m worried what customers will think. 

Sunday, July 4: We have lost about £8,000 in takings from being on reduced hours but I’m really grateful for all the support our staff have shown us. Three have come in on their days off to help cover shifts. This afternoon we return to Facebook to let customers know we will open at 8am tomorrow. It should be a happy moment but I go to sleep wondering whether another employee will have been pinged by the time I wake up. 

Thursday, July 15: We were free of the pings for almost two weeks but I knew our luck wouldn’t last. Jordan receives two more calls from staff. One of them is a chef and we need at least two in the kitchen at any one time. We frantically rearrange the rota — but this time we can’t get away with reduced hours alone and will have to close for two full days. As Monday and Tuesday are our least profitable days, they are the obvious choice. But we still ended up losing £5,500 as a result. 

We have dozens of bookings that can no longer go ahead, so we call each customer to tell them what has happened. Everyone seems supportive but I’m worried what customers will think

Tuesday, August 3: FIingers crossed, we haven’t been hit by any further pings. We have also managed to recruit three more employees. But I am living in fear that the pingdemic could force us to close again at any moment. On Friday we had our first positive case — a waitress who had been on leave for a week beforehand. 

As she she had been off for several days by the time she developed mild symptoms, no other Hideout employees have had to self-isolate. None of our four pinged staff members ended up testing positive for the virus. I welcome the decision to reduce the five-day window in which contacts are traced to two — it’s a start. However, if this will only cut the number of people being pinged by tens of thousands, then more needs to be done. 

Ministers have said that from August 16, anyone pinged by the app will no longer have to self-isolate if they are fully vaccinated. But why wait so long? My staff are all young and many are still waiting for their second jab. But even if they are pinged, surely if someone can prove they don’t have the virus through daily testing, they shouldn’t have to stay at home? One person in every five in the industry was self-isolating last week — that’s the impact this is having on our sector.

I’m very grateful for the help we have had, especially from Scarborough Borough Council, which was so quick to pay out our £10,000 small business grant at the beginning of the pandemic. And I know how lucky we are not to have been seriously ill with the virus, when so many others have been in hospital and died. But even though our turnover was £350,000 last year, we are yet to break even. And while the pingdemic rages, we don’t stand a chance of making up our losses.