How will pub trade survive latest restrictions?

James Stevens uses a blunt analogy to describe the demands being placed on pub licensees during the coronavirus pandemic.

James Stevens, manager of The Chapel House, Lower Gornal
James Stevens, manager of The Chapel House, Lower Gornal

"If they are expecting us to run a library with a bar at Christmas, I don't think that is going to work," says James, manager of The Chapel House in Lower Gornal.

While some of the more optimistic commentators declared that Christmas had been saved following this week's announcement that there will be some relaxation of the coronavirus rules over the festive period, James is sceptical.

"If they are saying pubs can open with impunity over Christmas, then I'm all for it," he says.

"But if they are saying we have got to make sure people sit down, if they are not allowed to mix, they are not allowed to come to the bar, they have to wear a mask to go to the toilet, and they are not allowed to raise their voices, then I think people will say 'Forget that, it's Christmas'.

"I think it is going to be like that, it will be better not to open."

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Before the first lockdown was announced in March, James ran a thriving village pub, well-known for its real ale. By the time the 10pm closing-time order was introduced at the end of September, he revealed that his profit for one six-hour shift on a Monday came to the princely sum of £1. He doesn't expect to see anything resembling normality until March at the earliest.

This week the Government announced that pubs in Tier 2 areas will only be allowed to reopen to customers who buy food with their drinks when the present lockdown ends on December 2. The news has been met with an angry response from small community pubs, which are unable to provide such services.

Nik Antona, chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale, accused the Government of 'singling out' the pub trade at a time when 72 per cent of hospitality businesses said they expected to go bust over the coming year.

"Once again, the hospitality sector is being singled out for further restrictions without evidence," he says.

"This is a kick in the teeth to the vast majority of publicans who have invested money and time in making their premises Covid-secure, and for the consumers that were using pubs to socialise safely."

James, 43, who keeps the Chapel House in Lower Gornal, says he is not surprised that many in the industry feel the rules could be the final straw.

"It's been a terrible time for our industry," he says. "It's been the worst time since records began."

Ken Lavender runs The Crown at Claverley with wife Mary

When Ken Lavender took over The Crown at Claverley in December last year, it seemed like a dream come true. The 61-year-old had first worked at the picturesque timber-framed pub in the idyllic village 35 years ago, helping to tend the bar when the landlord was away.

In 2018, he returned to the pub as manager following a major restoration, so when the opportunity to become the landlord arose just before Christmas, it seemed too good an opportunity to turn down. Almost a year on, it is a very different story indeed.

"It was the 10pm closing time which was the killer," says Ken. "In the week, it didn't really matter, but it made a huge difference at weekends.

"Only five per cent of Covid is in pubs, but look what happened when they started turning people out at 10pm," he says.

"They would then go straight down the supermarket to buy some more. How can it be right that we can't sell alcohol after 10pm, but they can go down the supermarket and buy it?"

While it has yet to be determined which areas will fall under which tiers, Ken will at least be able to serve food to his customers if he falls in Tier 2, although he still thinks that will have an impact on trade.

"What if people just want to come in for a pint?" he asks. "What difference will it make if they are eating a meal?"

Sympathetic

Like James, Ken questions the wisdom of relaxing the rules for a week over Christmas.

"People will just say 'It's Christmas' and forget all about it, and then when the infection rate rises in January, we will be going into another lockdown."

Despite his criticisms, Ken is sympathetic to the Government's situation, saying it is being forced to rely on trial and error in a situation nobody has any experience of dealing with.

Paul Crossman, chairman of the Campaign for Pubs, takes a harsher line, and says it feels like the sector is being deliberately targeted.

“The Government is giving every impression not only that it does not understand or care about our community pubs, but that it is actively targeting them with increasingly unreasonable restrictions for which they are still seemingly unable to provide any real evidence.

"These small businesses have willingly gone to great lengths to make their staff and customers as safe as possible in order help combat the spread of this dreadful virus.

"The Government’s own statistics have consistently shown that these efforts have succeeded in making hospitality one of the safest sectors of the economy."

Back in Lower Gornal, landlord of the nearby Red Cow Dave Corns reckons it could be as late as Easter before any sense of normality returns to the trade.

Like James at the Chapel House, Dave says the small capacity of his pub has made social-distancing a nightmare.

"We're a small real-ale pub, we can't do takeaways or anything like that," says the 67-year-old.

"It's all right for the Marston's, the Greene Kings and the Wetherspoons, they can do food, it's the little guys like us who suffer."

Yet while times are undoubtedly tough, James believes the pub trade will eventually weather the storm.

"It might be that it will be different in future," he says. "It might be that pubs will decide they do most of their business Wednesday to Sunday, and won't open Monday and Tuesday.

"But it will survive. UK brewing is the oldest surviving industry in the country."

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