By Amit Roy
LORD KARAN BILIMORIA has said that in order to survive the effects of the prolonged pandemic, “restaurants will need the support of government – they have been told they will be the last to open up”.
The 58-year-old crossbench peer is chairman of the company that supplies Cobra Beer to 6,000 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants, as well as Turkish, Thai, Chinese and Lebanese establishments.
“The industry is suffering hugely,” he stresses. “Virtually all the restaurants are shut.”
Lord Bilimoria’s voice will be heard loud and clear by the government because on June 16, the peer, who has already served a year as vice-president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), is expected to be confirmed as its president for a two-year term at the CBI’s annual general body meeting. He will be the first Indian to hold the post.
When his presidency ends, Lord Bilimoria will serve as vice-president for a further year.
He points out that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has stated that “we’re already in a recession. It’s a question of how long that recession lasts and how quickly we recover from it. It’s going to be really, really challenging. At the CBI we have always said it’s going to be a restart, revive and a renewal in three stages – and even the restart is in phases.”
“The main point is that employees need to feel safe when going to work,” he adds.
This is especially true of the hospitality industry, which employs three million people – “one in 10 jobs” – and contributes £38 billion a year to the economy.
In order to survive, some restaurants are doing takeaways. Many are committed to raising £75 each through ongoing charity “curry nights” until Sunday (31) on behalf of Prince Charles’s British Asian Trust, with the money going to Covid-19 victims in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
If rules on physical distancing are enforced when restaurants are finally allowed to reopen, many establishments may find that it simply does not make economic sense for them to restart their business.
Lord Bilimoria explains: “If you can only operate with fewer than 50 per cent of customers present at any one time, it may not be financially viable for many restaurants.
“They rely on being full on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. So that’s why they really need the support of government.”
However, despite the harsh realities, he remains optimistic. “We’re hoping that with all the support that’s been provided, restaurants will be able to come through this challenging time.
“In the three decades that Cobra has been in existence, we’ve had recessions, the global financial crisis and the ‘Great Recession’. And the restaurants have been amazingly strong and resilient. They are run by pioneering entrepreneurs who work extremely hard to give back to their community, who have made curry the favourite food of the country.
“It’s going to be very, very tough. But one also needs to keep in mind that Indian restaurants provide fabulous food and very good value for money. And the British public love curry. Certainly, consumers will be waiting for the Indian restaurants to open up.”
By way of preparation for his increased responsibilities at the CBI, Lord Bilimoria worked through the two-week period when he was struck down with coronavirus and living in lockdown at home in London with his wife and two of his sons.
“It hit me from nowhere overnight,” the Parsi peer told Eastern Eye. “No idea how I got it. Two weeks before then I’d been in back-to-back events – in London, in the country, in Oxford, in parliament. I’d been interacting with hundreds, thousands of people so I don’t know where I got it.
“For four days in a row I had been in the gym, I had intensively exercised, including boxing and doing Pilates, and then the next day I was completely hit by this. I had fever, my body was aching. I felt awful. And then I lost my sense of smell and taste.
“My oldest son got the same symptoms, but bounced back within a week. I’ve had an antibody test that shows that I definitely had it. There’s no question I had it.”
He has been using Zoom and new technology which he says is here to stay. “What has been remarkable is how adaptable we all are. I’m working a 14-hour day thanks to the technology. And it’s been tremendous, absolutely tremendous.”
As chairman of the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, he gave a lecture to the strategy class of the MBA course on Zoom and took questions, all of which went off without a hitch.
“It was Satya Nadella, head of Microsoft, who mentioned that in in two months we’ve leapfrogged to using technology that would normally have taken well over two years,” Lord Bilimoria says.
“It’s true we’ve had this technology. But now everyone’s using it, whether it’s Zoom or (Cisco) Webex or Microsoft Teams or BlueJeans. I’ve spoken in many debates in the House of Lords on Zoom. And it works.
He accepts that “you’re not going to cut out human interaction. But what is going to happen, without a doubt, is that much more use will be made of this technology. You can assemble people quickly wherever they are in the world without having to travel. There’s the sheer convenience of it, let alone the cost savings or the environmental effect as well.”
Universities will use Zoom and other technology to deliver their lectures for the academic year 2020-2021, says Lord Bilimoria, who himself is chancellor of Birmingham University.
Cambridge, which the peer attended as an undergraduate, announced last week that all its lectures for the coming academic year will be delivered online.
Other universities, he adds, intend following the “Harvard Business School model” – “hybrid classes, with some students in class on campus, others online”.
He says international students contribute £26bn to the British economy every year. And at the London School of Economics, the proportion of international students is as high as 70 per cent.
Lord Bilimoria, who is also chairman of the Memorial Gates ceremony, was disappointed that the contribution of Indian soldiers went largely unrecognised during recent events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. He says he will try and make sure this is not forgotten on VJ (Victoria over Japan) Day on August 15.
Asked whether 75 years from now, the nation will remember the contribution of Asians and other ethnic minorities to the NHS, Lord Bilimoria remarks: “Oh, my gosh, what a contribution!”