This on-again, off-again cycle could be the death of pubs
The pub industry can count itself lucky that new restrictions unveiled by the Government are not more severe. Pubs have been told to operate a 10pm curfew and mandatory table service from tomorrow. But it could well be a short-lived respite. These feel like staging posts on the road to far more stringent measures.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of coronavirus on pubs. Even before the pandemic, the industry was limping along.
We are all familiar with yearly reports of how pub numbers have tumbled precipitously since the turn of the century, with an acceleration since the 2008 financial crisis.
The culprits in the steady decline of the British pub have been many and nefarious. The smoking ban of 2006 pushed legions of dogged customers and their hacking coughs outside on to scraps of concrete optimistically labelled “beer garden”.
Supermarkets and their cheap cans of beer have been an indefatigable enemy. As pub margins vanished, the land they stood on became more valuable, prompting a spate of sell-offs.
Then there is the beer tie, which locks in landlords to the company that owns their pub. The “pubcos” have been accused of ramping up rents for tenants and setting stiff performance targets. These claims have always been vigorously denied by pubcos; none the less, concerns about the system resulted in the Pubs Code of 2017.
All of which is to say that the industry was in a fragile state pre-Covid, more so perhaps than the other sectors that have been hardest hit by the virus – such as travel and the arts, which were at least in comparatively rude health. But these earlier worries are like shot glass-sized aperitifs to the pint-sized drenching of Covid.
The pub industry claims the new curfew will be “devastating”, removing “a key trading hour”. It is, of course, likely that it will simply bring forward the rush for last orders. It will be worse for pubs that typically close later at weekends. For many it may prove a tipping point.
Some (Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin, for example) will argue that the science on Covid’s spread in pubs isn’t clear and therefore blanket closures and curfews are too blunt a tool. They miss the point: much of the science still isn’t clear and, in any case, government decisions have only partially leaned on the science.
Many consumers will have already voted with their feet; it is not unreasonable for people to conclude that gathering in an enclosed space talking loudly alongside other tipsy people isn’t a good idea.
Moreover, even the most hardened pub lover would struggle to justify keeping them open and potentially furthering the spread of the virus if the knock-on effect is that schools in the local area may have to close. Ministers won’t want to be seen prioritising pubs over schools again.
The industry shouldn’t be surprised to find itself in the crossfire. But neither should it be hung out to dry after a muted reopening in July.
Clearly many pubs cannot survive this off-on economy. Like constantly flicking a light switch, the end result is that the light bulb will pop; so it is with pubs. Those premises that spent a good deal of time and money trying to become Covid-secure will feel rightly aggrieved that they have been landed in the drink.
The wisdom of the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme is now looking shaky. Firstly there’s the mixed message it sends: “Go out! Eat! But now we’re closing the pubs early because you ate out and helped out!”
More importantly, might the £522m that the Treasury flung at the scheme have been better spent on a functioning test and trace system, to ensure that hospitality businesses like pubs were not exposed to the danger of a stop-start autumn? Or that, if they were, closures could at least be managed on a much more localised level?
There’s only so many times a landlord will pour away his locally sourced ales because of a lockdown before he throws his hands up in despair and decides this business is not for him (and it’s worth remembering wet-led pubs, which serve little, if any, food, won’t have benefited from Rishi Sunak’s half-price dinners).
In the long, painful decline of the pub, there is one last suspect to consider: the great British public itself. Beer consumption has been on a downward trajectory as we have become more health conscious. There has been a minor uptick in recent years, but this has mostly come from off-trade (at home) drinking.
Society and culture has changed in many good and important ways. People want their pubs to be there, but they don’t want to visit them five times a week. The longer not going to the pub becomes embedded in our culture, the more at risk they will be. Some of our best-loved pubs will close because of Covid. Others will be dormant for a very long time. A creative few will continue to make it work. Individual publicans will be left with debts they cannot pay.
When we lose a pub, a little part of our heritage and community vanishes with it. That sort of misty-eyed sentiment about Britain’s hostelries is unlikely to move hearts at the Treasury. But cold, hard numbers might: the sector is worth £23bn and generates £13bn for the Exchequer. It employs 600,000 people and 43pc of them are aged 16 to 24. This is hardly creative destruction we’re talking about, more the sacrifice of a sector where a level playing field has been ploughed under.
The Chancellor has said he wants to get “creative” about help for certain sectors. The pub trade, uniquely exposed and brittle as it is, and an employer of so many young people who’ve been so wounded by this recession, is a good place to start.
‘Earlier fears are like shot glass-sized aperitifs to a pint-sized drenching from Covid’