Are pub passports the answer to unlocking hospitality trade?

It sounds like script from the Last of the Summer Wine. Three silver-haired gentlemen, with bushy eyebrows and lived-in faces are at the bar, waiting to get served.

Mary Lavender keeps The Crown in Claverley with husband Ken
Mary Lavender keeps The Crown in Claverley with husband Ken

"Can I see your ID," asks the landlord.

"But John, you were at school with my daughter, I've been coming here for 50 years, and last year you hosted my 80th birthday party," says one of the men.

"Sorry, but there's nothing I can do," says the landlord. "If you can't produce your vaccine passport, I can't serve you."

That is the kind of scenario which could potentially be happening in pubs right across the country if talk of a 'vaccine passport' scheme for the reopening of pubs comes to fruition.

And it's fair to say that the idea has so far been received a very mixed response from the licensed trade.

Mary Lavender, who keeps The Crown at Claverley with her husband Ken, is not impressed at all.

"I think it's stupid," she says. "A lot of people haven't had the vaccine, I just can't understand why they're even thinking of it.

Mary Lavender with customers at The Crown in Claverley

"It's going to cause a lot of trouble in the pubs. What if you have got a group of people, and some members of that group have had the vaccine, and others haven't? Are you being expected to tell some members of that group to go home?"

Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week said he had not ruled out the idea of some kind of certification scheme being introduced before pubs are allowed to reopen.

Mr Johnson said "all sorts of things are being considered", but added it was "a bit premature" to speculate on whether pubs could ditch social distancing and mask-wearing requirements entirely by implementing a certification scheme.

"What we want to do is roll out the vaccine programme and see what that builds in terms of general resistance to the virus," he said.

"I do think there is going to be a role for certification."

But while there maybe a certain logic to requiring people in pubs to prove that they have been vaccinated before they are allowed back into bars, there is no doubt that a lot of thought will need to go into how it should be enforced when almost half the population is still waiting to be vaccinated.

James Stevens, who keeps the Chapel House pub in the village of Gornal, just outside Dudley, is quite open to the idea from a personal point of view, but thinks it would be a headache for many other landlords.

James Stevens of the Chapel House in Gornal

"My personal thoughts are that I would like everyone to have the vaccine before they come onto our premises," he says. "My other half is a nurse in the NHS, so we take it very seriously."

But Mr Stevens says while he supports the idea in principle, the difficulty will come with enforcing it.

"It's not such a horrendous prospect for us, as we are on good terms with 85 per cent of our customers, we know most of them personally," he says.

"But for the town or city pubs, which rely 50 per cent on passing trade, that's a different matter altogether."

Another problem is likely to be at pubs which specialise in meals, where different generations of a family normally dine together. While most family members aged 50 and over will have had their first dose by now, younger members of the family will more likely than not still be waiting for theirs. In some cases, it might even present a husband and wife going out together, if one of them has been given the vaccine, and the other hasn't.

John Ellis, who keeps the Crown Inn at Oakengates, has mixed feelings about the idea.

"I like the idea of people being able to show they're safe to be around other customers because they have had the vaccine or have immunity, but I don't like the idea of the enforcement," he says.

"I don't see how it would be possible short of having to put somebody on all the doors, and that doesn't go with our ethos of a friendly, welcoming, hospitable place.

"It's putting hostility into hospitality."

Mr Ellis, who has kept the Crown for more than 25 years, says the extra cost could be a burden for many pubs, particularly if social distancing rules force them to reduce their capacity.

John Ellis has mixed feelings
John Ellis has mixed feelings

"It won't be viable for so many pubs that are having to take on extra workers for reduced reward," he says.

Mr Ellis, who has been operating a home-delivery service throughout the pandemic, also believes the Government may have left it too late to give pubs time to prepare.

"It is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted," he says.

Pete Towler, who keeps Mad O'Rourke's Pie Factory in Tipton, says it would be wrong to impose any rules which discriminate against those who have not been offered the vaccine.

"I can't see how that can operate, I think that can only come in when everyone has had the opportunity to have the vaccine."

It seems that Mr Johnson is aware of the difficulties in that respect, and says the Government's certification committee will not be presenting its findings until April 5 at the earliest.

"We need to think carefully about the issues," he says. "There's lots of difficult issues, because there are some people who, for medical reasons, can't get a vaccination, pregnant women can't get a vaccination at the moment.

"You've got to be careful about how you do this. You might only be able to implement a thoroughgoing vaccination passport scheme – even if you wanted such a thing – in the context of when absolutely everybody had been offered a vaccine."

Pete Towler of the Pie Factory in Tipton

Mr Towler says if this were the case, he would feel much more comfortable with the idea, although he still felt should be up to the individual whether they want the jab.

"It's up to the Government really, but I do believe in freedom of choice," he says.

"Personally I think everyone should have the vaccine, it is good not only for themselves, but also for those around them. But I do think people should be free to choose."

A spokesman for Wolverhampton-based Marston's, which has pubs across the region, said the company was pressing ahead with plans to reopen outdoor areas on April 12.

"We have received no government information regarding vaccine passport at this stage,” he said.

And for many pubs, it will be the fine print of the legislation which will be crucial to how it will affect them. For example, will the rules apply to customers only, or will staff be required to comply? In an industry which relies heavily on younger staff who are unlikely to have had their vaccine yet, that could be another reason why it might be some time before we see such a scheme in place. Mr Ellis says, above all else, what pubs really want is clarity and ample notice to adopt to any changes.

"Boris Johnson says that as each of the different steps comes into force, he will confirm it a week beforehand," he says.

"But that means he will broadcast the announcement at 5pm on Monday evening, and say it will come into effect the following Monday. But it will be another two days before the law is actually published, and it will often be different to what was announced. That gives us just three or four days' notice to prepare."

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