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Pubs Hit Hard By The Pandemic Say They Face Opening With "Hands Tied Behind Our Backs" On 12 April

Pubs can start serving customers again from 12 April but more than half will not be able to re-open due to Covid restrictions (Alamy)

7 min read

After a year in which hospitality was battered by Covid restrictions, with just a week to go until they can welcome customers again the pub industry might be expected to be jumping for joy.

But with around 60% of venues not able to reopen due to rules on outdoor space, plus new test and trace rules and the looming threat of vaccine passports, 12 April is not being seen as a panacea for publicans and breweries.

Industry groups are calling for further support to help pubs through until the end of all coronavirus restrictions, as well as a plan to help them deal with a backlog of debts, rent and rates accrued throughout the pandemic.

Ahead of Boris Johnson’s statement confirming the next step of his roadmap to unlock England, representatives of the UK’s pub industry wrote to the Prime Minister to “express their incredulity at the government’s stealthy backsliding on pub reopening rules”.

A joint statement from UKHospitality (UKH), the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) said Covid certification, a requirement that every customer now checks in with the NHS contact tracing app, and a ban on taking payments indoors are a “triple whammy for hard-pressed publicans who have been forcibly closed for months”.

They said: “Government has promised the country that we will be reopening but we are now being told that this will be with our hands tied behind our backs.

“Pubs will already be trading at a loss when they reopen with all the existing restrictions and COVID-secure measures in place, adding further disproportionate and discriminatory measures threatens the very survival of thousands of businesses. 

“It’s unfair to single out our sector again with these added impractical burdens that will have economic consequences and risk our recovery.”

A recent report by consultants CGA and business advisory firm AlixPartners showed almost 12,000 venues have closed down permanently since the start of 2020, while an estimated 640,000 jobs were lost across the sector during the year despite government support such as the furlough scheme and access to loans and grants.

The survey showed 4,170 new sites were recorded since December 2019, leading to a net loss of 7,724 licensed premises, a 175% rise on the year before, and a warning the figure for 2021 could be even higher.

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, chair of the all-parliamentary group on pubs, said no other sector has “been treated as badly as pubs and hospitality”. 

“It was already a very difficult trading landscape, but Covid has accelerated that to the point that we are now looking at an existential threat,” she told PoliticsHome.

“Across the country you've had nine months out of the last year with trade severely curtailed, the industry is absolutely on its knees, as is the supply chain.

“There seems to be this view from the government, that come April 12 everything's going to be fine and go back to normal and they don't need to worry about the sector.

“But you look at the fact that the supply chain, the knock that they've taken, it’s equivalent to about 10 years of lost growth.”

As the months-long closures come to an end next week drinkers are looking to make up for lost time, with hospitality industry website revealing four million people have made bookings in the two weeks after 12 April.

But the BBPA said almost 30,000 pubs will remain closed as they do not have outdoor space, or cannot reopen in a financially viable manner.A survey of its members revealed around 75% of pubs have a beer garden or some kind of outdoor space, but only 40% have one big enough to serve customers n a Covid-secure manner.

Even then, they say many of those with big enough outdoor spaces could still struggle to break even as they deal with vastly reduced capacity and other practical challenges, and they predict just 17% of total UK pub capacity can be utilised from next week, resulting in a loss of turnover to the sector of £1.5billion when compared to trading in normal times. 

Greg Mulholland, campaign director of the Campaign for Pubs, said: “We hope that people will get out and support their pubs safely, as soon as they can, and help them get back on their feet, but this is still a very difficult time for publicans, with many in thousands of pounds of debt due to Covid-related losses, and with so much uncertainty and no sense yet of when pubs can really operate more normally again.

“The reality of government grants is that whilst they have been vital, they have not actually covered ongoing costs for most pubs, never mind provided income support for publicans and their families.

“Some publicans have not been able to pay their bills or even put the heating on. Many publicans will need years to pay off debts and they can only do that with normal, pre-Covid levels of trade and no restrictions.”

Mulholland told PoliticsHome he believed government support for pubs, such as a further business rates holiday till 2022, deferral of tax bills and Bounce Back Loan repayments, was essential. 

He also called for pub tenants to be given review of tenancies, "to stop unscrupulous landlords and pubcos charging pre-Covid level rent, when trade is far from normal and restrictions remain in place".  

Mulholland criticised the continuation of covid restrictions on pubs, including mandatory table service and the possibility of pubs requiring vaccine certification from customers. 

"These reduce trade and increase costs and are not being imposed on other businesses,” he said. 

His frustration was echoed by Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the BBPA. “Our sector has already gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare for reopening and we do not believe a requirement for pubs to check whether someone has had the vaccine would be appropriate or necessary,” she explained. 

McClarkin is calling for the government instead to create additional grants for the industry, as well as extensions to the job retention scheme, the 5% hospitality VAT rate and a business rates holiday.

UKH chief executive Kate Nicholls believed vaccine passports “would see further restrictions imposed at the worst possible time” and should not be used for day-to-day hospitality. 

“Even introduced on a voluntary basis, vaccine passports have the potential to cause huge amounts of confusion among businesses, customers and staff,” she told PoliticsHome.

“It could potentially give rise to a two-tier system of viability among businesses and a scenario in which young staff members, due to be vaccinated last, are working in a pub, but not able to use it for social purposes.”

She added that more must be done to help venues without gardens to exploit outdoor space, such as support from local authorities to flex rules on where food an alcohol can be consumed. 

Steven Alton from the BII is also critical of the prospect of Covid certification. 

“Public Health England proved last year that despite over 60 million visits a week in the summer of 2020 to hospitality venues, there was no discernible rise in Covid rates caused by people safely socialising in our pubs," he said.

“To demand even more of them at a time when their businesses are teetering on the edge, and at the same time excluding members of their communities who may not have the option of vaccination, would be devastating for our sector. 

“The recovery of our nation’s economy will rely heavily on our vibrant and vital sector, which contributes almost £60 billion to the treasury each year.

Nichols agrees that prevalance of young staff in pubs, and their age group being vaccinated last creates an issue.

“Who is going to staff the pubs if they bring this in?," she said. 

“I don't think Covid passports is the way to do it. Clearly it's having test and trace working properly, supporting venues to be properly ventilated, and to have the support if there is a case identified and they need to close.”

The MP said repeateding re-openings and closing has left pubs and breweries "in absolute disarray".  

She continued: “I think the way that they've been treated by the government just shows both a lack of understanding, but I think actually a real contempt for the sector, because many of the restrictions clearly were not evidence-led, this sort of very esoteric substantial meal requirement for example.”

Mulholland agreed: “We need the government to stop scapegoating pubs and allow them to operate sensibly and safely, without unnecessary restrictions, as happened safely last summer.

“That is the only way that pubs can really get back on their feet, so rather than planning photocalls in pubs on 12 April, we want ministers to commit to a proper package of ongoing support for pubs over the next crucial year.”

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