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The Government Chucks an Absurd Pub Idea Into the Lockdown Rumour Mill

Unlikely though it is, pubs reopening without alcohol would reintroduce freedoms while saving the government millions in grants

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Boris Johnson stares at a pint of beer in a pub Scott Heppell/AFP via Getty Images

Restaurants are still in a lockdown waiting game. When coronavirus restrictions will end in England remains unknown, while there just over three weeks to Rishi Sunak’s budget and one month more until much of the financial support thousands of businesses are relying on runs out. It’s crunch time for restaurants, and now the government is throwing another spurious pub rule into the lockdown rumour mill. Proposals that would see pubs and restaurants open as soon as April, on the proviso that they don’t serve alcohol, are reportedly being floated in 10 Downing Street.

Reports that the “substantial meal” rules for pubs are heading for the bin might appear to clash with such an announcement, but in reality the proposals are economically from the same Rishi Sunak playbook, and politically from the 1922 Committee appeasement file.

Allowing pubs to reopen in restricted fashion, because there is a pandemic — whether with curfews, those Scotch egg debates, or without booze — allows for “safer” environments with a sense of increased freedom, liberty fetishist and prime minister Boris Johnson’s favourite vibe. Spreading the rumour that by Easter, by April, people will be in even dry pubs is likely to leave lockdown sceptics in the Conservative party more satisfied, even if the policy itself would be anathema.

For Sunak, the policy — not the rumour — would again mean that those businesses not required to close would not be eligible for financial support, saving the treasury money after a year of public spending that would make even the most generous of conservatives queasy. It would, on previous evidence, make more epidemiological sense to keep pubs and restaurant closed until May, by which time all over-50s are supposed to have been offered a vaccine, and then allow them to reopen with alcohol. This is what the scientists are recommending. But “following the science” to that extent would require a full programme of financial support, which his hesitancy on extending business rates and VAT cuts suggests is not yet front-of-mind. “Wet-led” pubs, which don’t serve food, would also be particularly hampered by this policy after being particularly hamstrung by restrictions on takeaway alcohol sales and then meals for most of the year. Fizzy pop and fruit juice do not claw back a year of lost trade; breweries would again be dormant.

Ultimately this policy seems unlikely, and the act of spreading the rumour as a concession to the 1922 Committee is perhaps more worthy of note than the policy itself. Legislation for this lockdown remains dated to 31 March; the vaccine roll-out is seemingly still on schedule, and restaurants and pubs are still waiting on the financial support that they will need to get them to April or May, booze or no booze. But the rumours come first.