Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke his own government’s Covid-19 rules for visiting a pub when visiting a pub this week. He stood, pint in hand — the one he said he would be “cautiously and irreversibly raising” when announcing reopening, presumably — and talked to drinkers seated at tables in a pub garden in Wolverhampton. Current coronavirus rules for outdoor drinking stipulate that tables do not mix, with only seated, and not “VERTICAL” drinking allowed.
Taken in isolation, this is a minor infraction; it has not brought the frantic media confusion that attended Rishi Sunak’s rather more deliberately staged meeting in a closed Franco Manca pizza restaurant, even though that case was little more than confusion for confusion’s sake. On that occasion, everyone in the restaurant was there for the “meeting”; tables were set out like an Apprentice boardroom meeting; every participant was two metres apart.
But here, while meticulously stage-managed, is yet another example of the government bungling coronavirus messaging in an entirely avoidable fashion. In 2020, Michael Gove went into Pret a Manger without wearing a mask, because it was a takeaway cafe and not a shop, the day after health secretary Matt Hancock had said wearing a mask in Pret was required, because it was a shop. The week after Gove returned to Pret a Manger, with a mask. Parliamentary bars were exempt from Covid-19 curfew restrictions, until people got angry, and parliamentary bars weren’t exempt from Covid-19 curfew restrictions.
When it released a report into transmission in hospitality that clearly showed it had been reduced by social distancing, masking, and other health measures, it somehow managed to create the impression that transmission indoors would be low anyway without them, even though multiple indoor dining studies show aerosol transmission is possible even with ventilation, and made riskier by the unique conditions of a restaurant (sat down, at close proximity, for some time) as opposed to shops or retail, where people visit in short bursts and (mostly) wear masks. And when it introduced the now-scrapped “substantial meals” rule for pubs, ministers could not agree on the ontology of scotch eggs, contradicting each other on the term’s definition multiple times in the same week.
While Labour leader Keir Starmer endured his own pub garden nightmare by allowing his security to aggressively manhandle a landlord exercising his right to tell him to get out, he was at least able to sit at a table and grimace for the camera. Both parties are using hospitality workers — affected by the Covid unemployment crisis more than any other — as props having delivered them the bare minimum in support; only Johnson is setting an example that may lead others to force them to enforce public health rules they shouldn’t have to police.