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.

14 Comments

  1. So much of what you say is true here Ian, and yet I fear that the government will continue not listening, no matter how reasoned the argument and the correctness of the facts presented to them. The whole “substantial meal” argument is proof of their remoteness and their total failure to understand pubs.

    It also doesn’t say much for the so-called “experts” who are advising them. Being out of touch doesn’t even enter into it!
    I agree that the role of Public Health England in the irrational and ill-thought-out considerations applied to lock-down regulations, is in need of proper investigation, especially if the organisation is using the pandemic to drive their own, anti-alcohol agenda.

    The government’s over-reliance on pseudo-scientists, such as behavioral psychologists and mathematical modelers, when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, also needs far closer scrutiny. Unfortunately, ministers can hide behind the “we were following the science” argument, when things go wrong, rather than take responsibility for their own actions.

    Finally, there’s the media, and words fail me here. There is so much lazy journalism, stereotyping and out and out fallacies being propagated, to say nothing of sensationalism which exaggerates the threat and is designed purely to sell copy, or generate clicks.

    As for social media????

    Well done though, for speaking out in support of a much-cherished, national institution that is under threat, like never before.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Spot on analysis – I just wish our government (and their agencies) would analyse the sector with such common sense!

    One area that is difficult to resolve is the issue of closing times. I am completely against curfews as this only concentrates the problem when there are multiple pubs/bars in close proximity.

    For suburban and village pubs the 10pm curfew was an irritation that, in my experience, could be worked around. However, for town/city centres the 10pm curfew was a complete disaster. Our ‘overlords’ appear to have forgotten the lessons of extending opening hours which resulted in a much more gradual departure from pubs/bars putting far less pressure on public transport/taxi services and allowing for much better social distancing.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Agree with all of that, Ian, and as usual it’s a superb bit of writing.

    Sadly, I expect the 7 day rate of Covid infection required for reopening the pubs will be somewhere between 0 and 20 (wasn’t 20 the trigger for restrictions on travel back in the summer, or was that based on yet another calculation of Covid rates).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The past ten months have shown that trying to predict the future is well-nigh impossible. However, my expectation is that the reopening of pubs is likely to be very slow and cautious, and I can see that even when they can reopen they will be stuck in the equivalent of the old Tier 1 for a long time, which makes most wet-led pubs unviable.

    The issue of the curfew was largely defused after the November lockdown when pubs were allowed an hour’s drinking-up time until 11 pm, although they were only able to take advantage of this in Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and (for one week only) Herefordshire.

    Liked by 3 people

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  7. Where the hell can I get any bottles or cans of BASS? Asda used to do the bottles but it looks like they’ve stopped selling them, I know it’s not the same but I’ve now moved to The Yorkshire Dales and there are no pubs with it anywhere. Thanks.

    Like

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