Duke of Buckingham landlord felt like victim of ‘one big April Fool's prank’ after council Meals on Wheels fiasco leaves Southsea pub out thousands of pounds

A PUB landlord has been left feeling ‘stitched-up’ after his hopes to create an improved Meals on Wheels service for his community were dashed.

The Duke of Buckingham pub in Southsea took over Portsmouth City Council’s Meals on Wheels service on April 1.

However, owner Andrew Harvey said he felt like the victim of ‘one big April Fool’s prank’ after the plan was abandoned by the council after less than a week.

Andrew says he and his team care deeply about their community, and were keen to deliver a personal service to the elderly, vulnerable, and disabled in the city.

Owner Andrew Harvey and manager, Fiona Russell behind the bar at the Duke of Buckingham Picture: Habibur Rahman

He feels that the Meal on Wheels service offers ‘life support’ to its clients and gives them ‘a point of contact’.

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Andrew told The News: ‘I think this was a real stitch-up. It’s left us with a nasty taste - that is not what we set out to achieve.

‘We wanted to help people within our chosen area.

Owner Andrew Harvey and manager, Fiona Russell at Duke of Buckingham, Old Portsmouth Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘We thought it was a really good fit with what we were already doing, and it was something we felt we could pick up.’

The Duke of Buckingham took over the service from long-standing provider Apetito after the council rejected its request to hike meal prices from £5.50 to £8 and ended its contract.

The pub was notified by the council on March 15 that it was to cover three postcodes and temporarily PO6, but later were asked to cover all six postcodes due to issues the council had with other providers.

After changing its model to delivering hot food seven days a week instead of five, the business purchased more than £5,000 in additional equipment - including an extra delivery van, and ceramic heat plates to keep food warm.

However, as of March 25 - only one week before the planned launch on April 1 - the pub still had not received crucial information, leading Andrew to desperately contact the council to highlight his concerns.

Andrew says that despite frequent requests for information, his business was not provided with customer names, addresses, contact numbers, food requirements, payment and meal orderly provisions, or key codes to get into housebound customers’ homes.

On top of this, the pub became the sole provider after another food delivery company became uncontactable - and it later turned out that the client information they had been provided was incorrect or incomplete in places.

Andrew said: ‘We physically did everything we could, people were still working at midnight trying to work out routes.

‘That first evening we were in bits. I have never seen [partner] Fiona in bits before. We shut the pub that night because we were all emotionally drained.’

Despite the rocky start to the programme, Andrew says that within days the team was managing the new workload - but was left upset and disappointed when they were told that the council had pulled its contract with them.

One month later, Andrew says that the council has not paid the pub for meals supplied, or for additional equipment paid for by the pub - although he has received an email promising payment.

Andrew also says that he is concerned that the drivers employed by the council to deliver the food had no knowledge of food safety training.

However, the Duke of Buckingham is still offering its own award-winning delivery service, which it has been operating since 2020.

Andrew and his team were selected for the We Can Do It Best Business award after making and delivering an estimated 65,000 hot meals to vulnerable and elderly residents during the first Covid lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic the non-profit making initiative delivered between 70 and 90 meals per day to those in need, sending cottage pies, chicken pies and Sunday roasts to the doors of isolating residents in Old Portsmouth.

Andrew says that despite the challenges his business has faced during the Meals on Wheels contract fiasco, he is ‘proud’ of what was achieved in a short space of time - but that the experience is having a lasting impact.

He added: ‘It is my business and my reputation at stake. It’s tattered us, put a stigma on the business.

‘It’s people’s perception which is the most damaging thing.

‘I do not think it is fair.’

The Duke of Buckingham’s food hygiene rating dropped from five stars to two earlier this year.

This Andrew puts down to a change of guidelines, and emphasised that the changes that needed to be made were not related to the Meals on Wheels service.

Andy Biddle, director of adult social care at the council, said: 'We regret that some of our residents experienced disruption to their meal delivery service.

‘We have an interim solution so that everyone who wants one can get a hot meal.

‘We are working to provide a more permanent service from early summer and will continue with interim arrangements until that starts.'

Previously, Kirsty Mellor, opposition spokesperson for health, wellbeing and social care, said that she has requested ‘a full internal governance review’ to ensure that ‘this type of mismanagement does not happen again’.

Jason Fazackarley, the council’s cabinet member for health, wellbeing and social care refused to comment.

Kirsty said: ‘Many elderly people rely on the nutritional benefit of a meals on wheels service. ‘What is more they benefit greatly from the social interaction and contact that they receive from those delivering the meals.

‘Portsmouth Labour group believe that services such as meals on wheels should be provided by the council and not outsourced to external organisations, and a service that facilitates, health, independence, connectedness, and well-being.’