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The Tyranny of Scotch Eggs Could Be Over if Government Scraps ‘Substantial Meal’ Rules

Reports suggest that while reopening will require subscriptions, defining the ontology of snacks won’t be one of them

A Scotch egg on a white plate on a pub bar
The Harwood Arms’ rightly lauded Scotch egg
The Harwood Arms/Official

When pubs reopen after coronavirus lockdown, the requirement to serve “substantial meals” alongside alcohol is expected to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The government is ready to get rid of the rules which proved both unenforceable and farcical when England was under the tier system of coronavirus restrictions, according to the Times.

Previously, pubs in tiers two or three were allowed to open, provided they served ... Well. The government expected local councils — and ... The police ... — to decide whether individual menu items constituted a meal, which meant that a scotch egg’s definition might change from street to street in London and its 32 different councils. What it ultimately meant was that, if a pub couldn’t serve a “table meal” with its alcohol it had to close. Cue government ministers from George Eustice to Michael Gove opining on whether or not foods were “substantial,” “meals,” or the holy grail: both.

While the rules were absurd, the reasons behind them were not — at least for the government. For chancellor Rishi Sunak, they were a means of avoiding spending money on grants for pubs forced to close, by tacitly permitting them to open under range of spurious conditions. For Boris Johnson’s public health messaging, they were an opportunity to shore up the narrative of ‘alcohol + people = coronavirus’, which resulted in the also-scrapped 10 p.m. hospitality curfew, under which pubs were allowed to serve pints for pints’ sake.

For publicans it was both a nightmare and a nonsense — a weighing up of risk of being fined for contravening a law that not even the people making that law could agree on. Their actual purpose — to stop people from drinking — would have been infinitely better served by shutting down pubs with proportionate financial support, which has been a lacuna in government policy and hospitality lobbying from the beginning.

With further lockdown reopening rumours accompanying the news, restaurants and pubs are not expected to reopen before late spring, and will likely first to do for outdoor dining only. But one sign of progress might be the abolition of this rule, which suggests that the government hopes, at least, that partial lockdowns and cycling in and out of restrictions will be a thing of the past by late spring. Before then, however, the government has to make sure that pubs and restaurants make it that far.