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Pubs Accuse Government of Disrespect Over Reopening Plans

A clutch of large pub owners have criticised an “obvious lack of interest and respect”

UK Pubs And Restaurants Reopen After Coronavirus Lockdown Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images

U.K. pubs planning for reopening after coronavirus lockdown have accused prime minister Boris Johnson’s government of disrespect over its plans for lifting restrictions, one week before Johnson delivers the coronavirus reopening roadmap for England on 22 February.

Executives from huge pubcos like Young’s and Greene King have written to business minister Paul Scully to say they are withdrawing from a forum on reopening plans, citing what they say is “an obvious lack of interest and respect,” according to Propel.

The letter goes on to recap talking points large pub companies have long deployed, allied with some rhetorical jingoism: “We are shocked and appalled the government is basing its decisions to keep the great British pub closed on unfounded and unproven statistics ... There is absolutely no evidence to support some of the messaging suggesting pubs are a significant factor in spreading the virus.” The source of the actual disrespect is reportedly that the forum which the executives are withdrawing from is “playing politics under the guise of consulting,” though it does not elaborate on what this entails.

It’s true that the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on pubs and breweries is 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. That amounts to around an £8 billion decline. Some of the rules imposed — particularly the 10 p.m. curfew and “substantial meals” restrictions — have lacked epidemiological logic because of their being caught between Boris Johnson’s freedom fetish and chancellor Rishi Sunak’s desire to reduce spending where feasible. The absurd idea of reopening pubs in April, but without alcohol, is also in this bind.

That the owners are focussing not on the possibility of further financial support, but on pressing ahead with reopening, betrays two realities. They do not believe that the government is going to be forthcoming on assistance; they do not believe in shutting down pubs with that assistance if it were to be available. That’s what the air of grievance in the letter delivers, alongside the belief that “The roadmap for pubs should be as it was back in July – nothing more, nothing less. We would then expect restrictions to be reduced to zero over a short few months.”

Putting those restrictions in the context of case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths, and any increased risk to their workers as a result is not discussed, with the letter relying on the narrative that “they are the only places where alcohol is consumed in a controlled and supervised manner.” In the week that government watchdog Health and Safety Executive (HSE) declined to place coronavirus in its highest risk category because its effects are deemed “non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive and any disability is temporary,” and with the reopening roadmap just a week away, the divide between treating hospitality venues as places of leisure and workplaces, driven by pushes to “reopen” the economy, is only likely to grow.