What next for pubs?

My MP was asking for ideas on what to talk about re-pubs with Paul Scully, the under secretary for small businesses. Here’s my thoughts on what he and the government needs to do.

(Disclaimers: I’m not commenting on the need for financial support for pubs given that there are others knocking on that door. As I live in the Peak District, an area with relatively low rates of COVID, please don’t expect too many insights into urban living.)

As ever I’m thinking about those folks like me who are mere lovers of pubs and wistfully dream of the day when I can have a pint or two with mates after a walk.

They’re at it again

The last few months have had me shouting at the TV news on a regular basis but this week it went off the Richter Scale. ITV News presenter, Mary Nightingale, reported ‘they’re at it again’ in relation to a solitary publican in Walsall who decided to have a lock-in for customers. It was according to the reporter, ‘part of a stubborn minority who won’t obey the rules’. Go on, name them I shouted. Say what percentage of all publicans those pubs represent.

If ministers could do one thing for pubs I’d ask to start by recognising the good sense of 99.9% of publicans and their customers.

I’d like the Secretary of State for Business to say,

“No business sector could have done more to prepare themselves for COVID than the pub trade. They invested in COVID-safe infrastructure, equipment and monitoring. They showed why they provide such a great service to their communities. I note that many pubs have continued to help in feeding and delivering to the vulnerable in these difficult times. These pubs are a tower of strength in their communities

In the pandemic whenever pubs were open their customers behaved with good sense and helped in tracking, to a level unmatched by other retail outlets. It’s very unfortunate for them that as a government we have felt the need to shut pubs down.

The images in the media of groups drinking on the streets in the summer had more to do with off-sales of alcohol rather than pubs. We accept the good sense of publicans. Groups of police officers visiting well-respected pubs to look for COVID-ready failings had more in common with drones chasing dog-walkers and the harassment of women walking in the countryside, rather than British policing at its best.

The lockdown of pubs and the restrictions we have placed on them, have not been the fault of pubs and their customers. We now need to help pubs survive, recover and thrive as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Show a way forward

So how could government help? Pubs need to see a way forward. I recognise that fixed dates for the re-opening of pubs aren’t possible at this time. That doesn’t mean that pubs and their customers can’t be given hope and the opportunity to plan.

It’s time to set some targets. Government needs to decide the level of 7 day rates for positive cases, hospital admissions and population vaccinated per head of population, that need to be achieved by local area before pubs can open. Opening targets would offer an incentive to pub-goers and the opportunity for brewers, pubs and ancillary suppliers the chance to plan for their businesses.

Offer the pub sector a carrot and then, in my view, most publicans would accept the need for strict COVID-ready compliance. If that includes the government telling people to use local pubs rather than travel, so be it. Sorry to my chums the pub tickers, but you may have to stay at home for a while. Save your local, drink local.

By all means be tough on those few pubs who won’t comply. If that means some losing their licence so be it. We have to get pubs open.

End the substantial

During the pandemic there have been a few rules and guidelines without much evidence to justify decisions. Pubs seem to have suffered from this more than any other sector. The government ‘study’ with its comparison of all UK pubs to a few cases of transmission in bars across the world was one of the worst. It was poor research, it failed to make logical arguments and failed to present relevant evidence. It was a flimsy fig leaf to justify pub closures.

Whilst I’m partial to a pie and chips with my pint, I’ve yet to understand how the pie makes me less likely to fall prey to the virus. The ‘substantial meal’ issue has led to a level of ‘scotch egg’ ridicule that any government would do well to avoid. It’s also financially ruined the wet-led pubs that are the bedrock of many communities.

Let’s get the pubs open and forget the ‘substantial’. Publicans are experienced in dealing with customers who can’t behave. Let the publicans run the pub.

Understand pubs’ products

Pubs sell products with a very limited shelf life. In particular, the challenge of serving traditional cask beer at its best means that brewers and publicans need to have certainty that their outlets are open and will stay open. We cannot have a few weeks open and then shutdown again. Better to open later rather than too early. Please give them time to plan.

Be honest about PHE’s views on pubs

And finally, can we please have some honesty from government, the NHS and Public Health England. If they feel that pubs and their selling of alcohol is the personification of evil then let’s have a public debate backed by an understanding of pubs. Detailed evidence rather than the prejudice of a so-called health lobby. Some of us feel that pub closures have reflected temperance views as much as a need to control the spread of the virus.

Pubs have a hugely important role in their local communities. The majority of pubs are light years away from the Hogarthian vision of some health commentators. Beer is not the main reason people go to pubs. Pubs are not the reason for isolated cases of excessive drinking on city streets. Pre-loading and off-sales needing to be recognised as a serious issue, rather than blaming the pubs for every social disorder going.

Pubs offer the chance to be part of our wider world. A world that at its best accepts anyone, allows anyone to talk or read their book.

Let’s hear it for the pub and most importantly let’s hear it from a government that supports pubs.