Julia Hartley-Brewer

British pubs have been pushed to the brink

British pubs have been pushed to the brink
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A long time ago, a seasoned old hack gave me some wise words of advice: never to trust anyone who did not know the Sunday pub opening hours. This was back in the days when the Nanny State got to decide when pubs could open on the Sabbath.

This year, after thirteen long months of the Gestapo State in charge of whether pubs could open at all, I’ve decided to write off anyone who didn’t have '12 April' circled and underlined in red ink three times in their diaries to mark our return at long last, after a long hard lockdown winter, to the pub.

It was hailed as the Great Reopening. But when Monday finally dawned, the Great British Weather had other ideas, delivering freezing cold temperatures, sleeting snow and, yes, actual hail to large parts of the country. Not that it deterred the hardy Brits, of course.

'Look!' the lockdown lovers cried, 'You’re back in the pub! We’re not in lockdown anymore!'

A bizarre claim given that 12 April marked the day when we were very specifically not allowed back in the pub. On the contrary, we were only allowed outside the pub. And even then, with the finger-wagging advice from Boris Johnson to do so 'responsibly' and 'sensibly'.

Yet the chance to enjoy a drink in a beer garden did not bring as much joy to publicans’ hearts as it did to their customers. Indeed, the partial reopening of hospitality venues has been a cruel double-edged sword for many.

Government ministers and SAGE members may have done away with the madness of the 10pm curfew and the Scotch Egg Rule requiring everyone to order a substantial meal or be guaranteed to kill granny as they sipped their pint, but they were still determined to made life as difficult as possible for landlords.

No one at Public Health England or SAGE has ever presented any solid evidence that pubs and restaurants have been responsible for spreading Covid, with only a tiny proportion of cases traced back to hospitality prior to the introduction of the 10pm curfew.

Yet they are happy to put an industry worth £133 billion to the UK economy and many of the three million jobs relying on hospitality at more risk even as the kegs of beer were rolled behind the bar.

The Great Reopening steadfastly ignored the fact that most pubs and restaurants do not have any outdoor space to open in the first place, which meant that fewer than two in five could open their doors at all (if only for customers to nip to the loo). Others with a few square metres of empty pavement often found jobsworth council officials stood firmly in the way of al fresco drinking and dining.

And even those pubs with huge beer gardens and loyal customers willing to book in advance cannot celebrate just yet.

Barely any pub or restaurant can break even on customers sitting at outside tables alone, and especially when the requirement of table service means paying for extra staff, and when social distancing rules mean a strict limit on customer numbers and huge outlays on 'covid secure' measures. Because God only knows how many thousands of us would now succumb to the virus if we didn’t have one-way routes to the loo marked out with arrows on the floor, eh?

Added to those costs are the tens of thousands in debts in 'bounce back' bank loans that most hospitality venues now have, not to mention their ongoing rent and staff furlough bills. Frankly most pubs will be lucky to survive to the end of the year, even with the promise of indoor opening in a few weeks’ time.

Even then, publicans’ woes won’t end. Soon they will face a Hobson’s choice as the government tries to enforce vaccine passports, when landlords will be forced to decide between demanding to see evidence of their customers’ personal medical records to enter a pub - which then enables them to abandon social distancing and make a profit again - or instead keeping limits on their numbers and watch their business slowly go under.

Pubs may be back in business for now, but if normal life does not return soon, many of us could have a new date to circle in our diaries: the day the great British pub died.

Written byJulia Hartley-Brewer

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a talkRADIO presenter. Tune in to her show every weekday from 6.30am to 10am.

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