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Pubs Are Trapped in a Lockdown Waiting Game They Can’t Afford to Play

Numerous pub associations are asking the government for clarity on timelines and support strategies

Empty pint glasses sit on top of beer taps in a pub, showing the beer has run out
Pubs are in peril
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Pub trade bodies are once again asking the government when pubs will reopen after coronavirus lockdown, following the rumour that they would reopen with no alcohol as early as April. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has published its own version of a recovery roadmap in which pubs reopen after the vaccination of the “most vulnerable” is complete in May, and pressured the government to complement its strategy with ongoing financial support, according to Propel.

The figures it sets out on the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on pubs and breweries are stark: In the second quarter of 2020, which incorporated the first full lockdown, pub beer sales dropped 96 percent from 2019, while the fourth quarter of 2020 — the era of 10 p.m. curfews and substantial meal rules — saw pub beer sales drop 77 percent from 2019 levels. This is why, according to the BBPA, any reopening must be ballasted by “an extension to the VAT cut and business rates as well as a significant beer duty cut.” The government is yet to cut beer duty, and its current VAT rate cut from 20 percent to 5 percent and business rates relief scheme will expire next month.

As for London’s restaurants, the duelling forces of vaccination speed, financial support expiration, and chancellor Rishi Sunak’s upcoming March Budget make right now feel like crunch time for pubs. Without news of either financial support extension or reopening timelines — if not both — many, like restaurants, will have to take decisions on employment and existence that assume neither are forthcoming. That means closures; that means job losses; that means empty pubs on empty streets. The idea that pubs could reopen earlier, in April, without alcohol is likely little more than a carrot to lockdown sceptics, so for now it’s a waiting game that many pubs simply cannot play for much longer. With an estimated 2,500 lost in 2020, many thousands more will be at risk without a timeline, and a plan to support them through it.