As the festival of lights is cancelled, businesses say 50 per cent may stay permanently closed
By Barnie Choudhury
Police are warning south Asians to observe Covid lockdown rules during Diwali or face huge fines.
In cities, such as Leicester, upwards of 45,000 traditionally gather to celebrate the festival of lights.
But police are urging people to obey the law.
“The festival has been cancelled this year to try to stop people congregating,” Chief Inspector Paul Allen from Leicestershire Police told Eastern Eye. “For Diwali itself, there will be extra police patrolling the area to make sure people are observing the Covid restrictions.
“These patrols will be aimed at engaging with people, and we’d only go to the enforcement stage if we felt we had to because they weren’t following the advice not to congregate.”
Latest figures show that forces have issued more than 20,220 fixed penalty notices between lockdown in March and 19 October.
These include 980 for pandemic breaches of ‘localised restrictions’ and 66 for gatherings of more than 30.
“We have made a commitment to attend any reports of parties, held for any reason, within an hour,” said Superintendent Mat Healey from Nottinghamshire Police. Unfortunately, a small minority of people have refused to take the advice on board and that is where tickets have been issued.”
So far, 12 per cent (one in eight) of those fined in England were Asian. In Wales that figure is one in 10.
Greater Manchester Police have handed out 374 penalty notices for breaches in lockdown, the most in England.
The area has been in the highest tier of restrictions, and the force said they work closely with local communities to make sure they celebrated religious festivals safely.
Chief Superintendent Umer Khan told Eastern Eye, “We have a duty to protect life, and we continue to engage with people, explain the guidelines and encourage them to be followed, and will only move to enforcement as a last resort.”
In England forces issued 18 fines of £10,000 for large gatherings of 30-plus people. All those contacted by this newspaper said their force had “well established plans” in place to deal with possible breaches.
One said that they worked “in a highly reactive way to meet the demand, as and when this changes”.
A Derbyshire spokesperson said, “There are no measures in place to stop people from gathering but if people are found to be breaching legislation then they run the risk of being fined.”
West Midlands Police handed out more than 400 fixed penalty notices since March, and they are clear about policing Diwali.
“These are not the festive celebrations that anyone would have wanted, and we do not want to spoil anyone’s fun, but we do have to follow the regulations to help prevent the spread of the virus,” said a spokesperson.
“We continue to urge the public to follow the rules, the greater effort we can all make now to prevent the spread of the virus, the greater opportunities we may have to enjoy our festive celebrations.”
Leicestershire Police have issued almost 420 notices, six of which were for gatherings of more than 30.
On Monday (2 November) the prime minister, Boris Johnson, gave MPs more details about plans to lockdown England from Thursday.
Among the new measures, “non-essential retail” will close apart from click-and-collect services.
Restaurants will also close except for takeaways.
Traders have told Eastern Eye that the new lockdown measures are needed, and their customers’ safety is their main concern.
But they concede the restrictions will have a huge impact on business. Some have already reported takings down by as much as 80 per cent since pandemic restrictions in March.
Diwali night this year is unlikely to see usual 45,000 people gathering in the Belgrave area of Leicester, known as the Golden Mile because of its array of restaurants, jewellers and sari shops.
The city proudly states that it holds the biggest celebrations outside India, but now signs show that Diwali events have been cancelled.
“Diwali as a 10-day period, as I count it every year, the impact will be devastating,” said Dharmesh Lakhani owner of Bobby’s the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the city. “It’s not just these 10 days, we’ve lost everything since March, and our trading year starts in March with Mother’s Day, Easter, the summer. In between Navratri we have Eid.
“Diwali sets all the businesses in the area for four to five months to cope with the winter. It’s going to be tough, and I can see a number of businesses failing over the next four to five months, which may just have survived with Diwali.”
The curry trade in the UK contributes a conservative £4.2 billion, according to a 2015 report by Lord Karan Bilimoria, the chairman of Cobra Beer and a member of parliament’s curry committee.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions have impacted it a great deal, with some restaurateurs reporting business falling by between 60 and 80 percent.
The pandemic has also affected the jewellery trade. Bipin Jewellers in Leicester opened 40 years ago, and its manager Jitu Vaitha told Eastern Eye that it has been the worst year he can remember.
“During Diwali there is one day when everyone buys gold and solid silver,” he said. “It can be a small or big amount, but they buy something. On that day we do more business than any other time of the year. We’re just going to call it a write-off year, what else can we do?
“We’ve seen footfall drop by 70 per cent. No weddings. Our business thrives on weddings. People who are getting married will buy jewellery, boy and girl side. I can’t say I’m the only person suffering, everyone is suffering. Lots of businesses, especially those who are renting their shops, are closing down.”
Similarly, Anokhi House of Sarees, which opened in 1967, will close from Thursday (5 November) store because of the new lockdown measures.
“Diwali business gets us through the quieter periods,” Karan Modha, the third generation to run the store said. “Because we specialise in weddings and no weddings tend to happen between December and March, it gets us through those three and a half months. We’ll be down, in terms of sales, 80 to 90 per cent easily. Right now, I don’t know how we’re going to survive. We’re just taking each day as it comes. This next month will be very, very tough.”
The East Midlands Chamber of Commerce is also concerned. One of its directors, Jaffer Kapasi, agrees with those who are telling him that between 30 and 50 per cent of businesses will not survive.
“These businesses will suffer because there is no Diwali,” he said. “It’s a time when everyone buys something as gifts, sarees, jewellery, sweets, and that’s all stopped. It’s a double whammy for Asians because the pandemic means trade has gone down and Christmas will also be affected.
“The fear is that traders are worried they won’t have the same level of custom coming back once lockdown is lifted. The spending power has gone because people are in survive mode, they just want to survive and get through this, especially those whose jobs were dependent on the local economy.”
It is the same in north-west London. At Hari Jewellers in Kingsbury, assistant manager, Karan Soni, told Eastern Eye, that all three of his staff were put on furlough.
“It has helped, but the majority of the impact has been on the loss of business rather than employee wages,” said Soni. “There’s been the bounce back loan, which is another one which the government has helped us with. Speaking with other colleagues in the trade as well, it helped them as well.
“For us, it’s not something that can help a huge amount of the loss of potential business which we had estimated at the beginning of the year. It’s quite difficult really to give numbers. But I’d estimate we have lost around £100,000.”
Soni thinks that the pandemic has obviously changed customers’ mindsets in terms of coming into the store when it comes to hygiene, and the entire shopping experience.
“This is something that has changed the way that small businesses will thrive and will be run. In previous recessions as well, that has caused even big businesses to crumble. So, it’s going to definitely lead to a change of the way businesses run. It’s something is going to impact not only after when Coronavirus has gone, but especially for the foreseeable future.”
In Leicester Lakhani has personal experience of the effect of the pandemic on his business. One of his chefs has left the industry and, to get steady work with overtime, he is now a forklift driver and is unlikely to come back.
Bobby’s, named after the Bollywood film, was opened in 1976, and it is now having to add to the way it trades.
“We’re starting deliveries throughout the country, so if you order boxes of sweets, they will be with you next day delivery,” said Lakhani. “We’re hoping we can do some sales there, but again it’s not something our normal customer base would use.”