I should firstly make it clear that the following is my personal view of the situation and, in this instance, I am not stating CAMRA policy, either local or national.
So, to recap, why are pubs so important to beer drinkers, as chiefly represented by the Campaign for Real Ale? While I would not wish to disparage bottled beers, which many of us had to rely on during both lockdowns and are so much better now than they were even ten years ago, cask conditioned beer is essentially a bulk product and is therefore at its best when served in a pub with a well managed cellar and a good turnover. There are also a large number of us who value pubs for their architectural merit and their unique place in our nation’s social and economic history.
In early October I noticed a post on Facebook which claimed that it was Government policy to close down all pubs permanently. I doubt that very much but, all the same, I think that those of us who truly value the British pub are entitled to question certain aspects of the Government’s approach. What we are actually facing, in my opinion, is the re-emergence of the demonising of alcohol. The presumption appears to be that everyone who visits a pub must, by definition, end up drunk and out of control. Obviously it happens, but by no means anywhere near to the extent that is being assumed; indeed, quite the opposite. A well run pub – which is the vast majority of them – is a controlled drinking environment. Going to the pub is a social event. That is why many people, and not just CAMRA, believe that pubs make a significant contribution to both sensible drinking and our mental health and wellbeing. During the current lockdown it is certainly the company of my friends that I am missing more than the beer.
Pubs have always been part of my life. My parents and wider family used them and so, in due course, did I (although perhaps earlier than legally I should have). I have no recollection of there being regular excessive drinking. This is how I learned to respect alcohol. I repeat: a well run pub is a safe and controlled environment in which to drink.
I fully acknowledge that an addiction to alcohol can destroy lives and it is not my intention to belittle that aspect of the problem; likewise with addiction to drugs and gambling. I also respect those whose religion forbids the consumption of alcohol and those who abstain for health reasons, although I am puzzled by the number of young people who won’t touch alcohol but regularly smoke cannabis.
The problem, as I see it, is that the people currently setting the rules for pubs are not pub-goers (except for the occasional photo call) and they have no knowledge or appreciation of the culture involved. I suspect that, as a consequence, they look down on pubs. I also suspect that the anti-alcohol lobby has a stronger voice among the ‘powers that be’ than do those who support pubs. Apart from a few idiots, who are now belatedly being dealt with, pubs have cooperated fully with every restriction that the Government has put on them. This includes spending £900 million on COVID precautions, yet still they are treated with suspicion based on ignorance.
By way of evidence, let me quote from an article in the Daily Telegraph of Friday 9 October. This reported that, in a meeting with a junior health minister and medical experts on 8 October, 149 MPs representing constituencies in locked down areas (see below) were shown a Cabinet Office ‘early analysis’ paper which was intended to explain the Government’s 10pm curfew policy for pubs and restaurants. This paper was, the article claimed, based on a survey carried out in the United States three months earlier and showed that 29.8% of COVID transmissions came from pubs and restaurants and just 2.6% from private homes. More recent data from the Test and Trace Service however put the figures at 5.5% and 75.3% respectively. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who was doing the daily interviews round at the time, said that it was ‘commonsensical’ that the longer people spent in pubs, the more likely they were to transmit the virus. An unnamed Tory MP was quoted as saying, “It was very clear that they had cobbled together this data as a retrospective attempt to justify closing pubs.”
Similarly, responding to a statement that Health Secretary Matt Hancock made to the House of Commons, CAMRA’s Chief Executive, Tom Stainer, said, “The Health Secretary’s statement was billed as being about the 10pm curfew for pubs and hospitality, but we heard next to nothing about the evidence behind this decision which is crippling the beer and pubs industry. Without seeing the evidence about the curfew and about transmissions in pubs, the sector feels that it is being unfairly targeted without explanation, evidence or any financial help to compensate.” To add to this I will query the equally nonsensical requirement for table service, which actually increased the health risk for bar staff.
When the second lockdown ends controls will almost certainly still be applied. My worry is that these controls will quietly be left in place when (if) the COVID pandemic finally eases because pubs, especially wet led pubs, are seen as a ‘health issue’ in need of permanent control. If going to the pub, except for a ‘substantial’ meal, is going to be made challenging, people just won’t go. That will then play into the hands of the big pub companies and the property developers. Furthermore, it will not achieve what the ‘powers that be’ intend. The consumption of alcohol will continue, only at home or in unlicensed venues instead of the controlled environment of the pub. I suspect that the rate of consumption will increase as well, with spirits taking over from beer.
This is what I fear we will need to be campaigning for before long: our right to drink sensibly and comfortably, in the company of our friends.
Note: as at 21 October, according to the Morning Advertiser, 16,436 pubs, some 43.7% of those in England, were under either Tier Two or Tier Three restrictions, with many of those in Tier Three being closed.