Introduction to the April/May 2021 edition

Welcome to the April/May 2021 edition of London Drinker. There are two major events to report on: the plan to take us out of the third lockdown and the Budget. The two are, of course, inextricably linked: will the budget provide enough help for our beleaguered pubs to help them survive until they are allowed to open again? The Budget is covered here.

The regulations covering the lockdown specified that there was to be a review on 15 February and the outcome, which somehow acquired the epithet ‘roadmap’ but is properly called the COVID-19 Response – Spring 2021, was announced by the Prime Minister on 22 February. This was not before the now customary deluge of rumours, much as happened at the end of the first lockdown. The details are covered here. The announcement led to newspaper headlines such as ‘passport to normal life’ (Metro 24 February) while the Prime Minister, echoing Winston Churchill, spoke of ‘sunny uplands’. Without wishing to be a party pooper, it needs to be understood that the Prime Minister did make it clear that the dates given were ‘first possible’ ones and not targets. The measures do not come into effect automatically; the Government has to give the go ahead for each event, in the form of a week’s notice. As recently as 9 March, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that COVID will never be eliminated. Sadly, it is unlikely that the pandemic has finished with us yet.

This time the system of regional tiers has been abandoned. Instead, England will be covered by ‘one size fits all’ regulations. There is good news in that, once reopening is permitted, we will not be subject to the 10pm curfew and the ‘table meal’ requirements. The bad news is that table service, the ‘rule of six’ and social distancing will still be with us. Table service is my pet hate; I still believe that it puts bar staff at a higher risk than service at the bar. Curiously, to begin with, nothing was said about relaxing the restriction on pubs selling take away alcohol, something which I had been expecting. I assumed that, in line with their existing policy, once people were permitted to again meet in groups in public parks and open spaces, the Government would not want them consuming alcohol when doing so. A few days later it was reported in the press, in this case the Hertfordshire Mercury, that ‘Downing Street has confirmed that pubs will be allowed to serve drinks on a takeaway basis from April 12 to help boost those without a garden area. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said, “Outdoor hospitality is permitted so I believe it would be the case that takeaway alcohol will be permitted.” I’m not sure that this makes sense but let’s not complain.

One very odd rumour was that pubs were to be allowed to reopen so long as they did not sell alcohol. The Telegraph reported that the ban was to ease the concerns of those, said to include Professor Whitty, who were concerned about the impact of drinking alcohol on social distancing. My first thought was that the ‘powers that be’ were calling our bluff over our view of the importance of pubs to mental health along the lines of ‘if you think they are so important then you will use them even if they are not selling alcohol’. I hope I was wrong because that shows cynicism and ignorance in equal measure. What they believe happens in pubs is clearly based on old prejudices and although they pay lip service to the mental health issue, I doubt that they understand the damage done. It did however bring to mind the old Slim Dusty song: ‘But there’s nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear, than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer’.

Taking the opposite stance was the COVID Recovery Group of MPs who took the view that there was no justification for restrictions to continue beyond the end of April and certainly not once all those over fifty had been offered a vaccination, a process due to be completed by the end of May.

CAMRA’s National Chairman, Nik Antona, responded to the Prime Minister’s announcement as follows: “While we understand the Government’s cautious approach, this will nonetheless be a disappointing announcement for the beer and pub industry, which looks set to be the last to be allowed to properly reopen. We know that pubs aren’t vectors for transmission, so ministers must publish the full evidence behind applying restrictions on pubs when the likes of non-essential retail will be able to fully open up sooner and without restrictions. Whilst scrapping the curfew and substantial meal requirement is welcome, only permitting pubs to operate using outside space at first, and then inside using table service only, isn’t a proper reopening. Two thirds of pubs could stay closed during the outdoor-only trading period, with many more likely to struggle without being able to trade at full capacity while the table-service-only requirement remains. The Prime Minister’s commitment to continue financial support is welcome, but, as a result of this roadmap, next week’s Budget is more vital than ever. First and foremost, pubs, breweries and the wider supply chain desperately need ongoing financial support not only for the next few weeks but for as long as pubs are operating at a reduced trade. The Budget must also include an extension to furlough and the business rates holiday, a reduction in VAT for on-trade alcohol sales as well as food and cutting duty for beer served in pubs to help them compete with supermarkets.”

I picked up on a worrying point from a Government press conference in early February, when one of the speakers said that COVID is unlikely to be totally eliminated so will have to be controlled in the community, much as has ‘flu for many years now. Although it hasn’t been thought necessary to put restrictions on pubs to control ‘flu, my concern is that an attempt will be made to impose long term controls on pubs because of COVID.

Finally, at least we do appear to have some way forward. In memory of Captain Sir Tom Moore, let us hope that, eventually, ‘tomorrow will be a good day’.

Tony Hedger