Covid: Will the UK's pubs stay shut until May?

By Paul Seddon
Politics reporter

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image copyrightReuters

To many, the reopening of pubs will be one of the most keenly awaited dates in the diary when Covid restrictions are eventually loosened.

A world-famous British institution, they have been, along with other hospitality businesses, especially hard hit during the pandemic.

And previous lockdowns suggest both pubs and restaurants are facing a longer route back to normality than other sectors hit by periods of closure.

Recently, one group of scientists advising the government warned against reopening the sector before May.

Although the government is aiming to give over-50s a first vaccine dose by the spring, that would still leave a large number of people unprotected, they argue.

One of the scientists, Dr Marc Baguelin from Imperial College London, said even a partial reopening before then could mean "unsustainable" pressure on the NHS.

The government has not set out when or how restrictions might be lifted - but is under increasing pressure to sketch out an exit plan.

Other fixtures of the High Street, such as "non-essential" shops, have been earlier to reopen when restrictions have been eased previously.

Pubs and restaurants are currently closed across the UK - apart from some Scottish islands, where they can open until 6pm but not serve alcohol.

In a change from earlier lockdowns, pubs and bars in England and Northern Ireland now face a total ban on selling takeaway alcohol - previously described as a "lifeline" by the Society of Independent Brewers.

Pubs can no longer offer takeaway pints for outside consumption in mainland Scotland, where drinking alcohol is now banned in public outdoor areas.

Takeaway pints can be served in Wales but only if the premises already has a licence to do so.

'More sites lost'

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, has said a May reopening would be later than the April restart the sector had anticipated.

With the industry burning through half a billion pounds in cash each month of closure, she warned, there could be "very little" left to reopen if closures last that long.

Latest industry monitoring figures released last week show the plight it is facing - with a net loss of almost 6,000 licensed premises last year, triple the tally in 2019.

Graeme Smith, from AlixPartners, who compiled the data, noted that the coming months "will likely see more sites lost for good".

"Unlike the first lockdown, operators now don't have the benefit of a cash pile generated through the key Christmas trading period," he added.

image copyrightReuters
image captionPubs in England can no longer sell alcohol as a takeaway, only as a delivery.

The stark closure statistics highlight how the duration of economic support, as well as the vaccination timetable, could be crucial in determining how long doors stay closed.

The furlough wage support scheme is due to finish at the end of April - whilst business rates holidays for hospitality and leisure firms are due to end early in the same month in each of the UK nations.

The end of March will also see the application period close for government-backed loans of up to £50,000 to smaller businesses under the "bounce back" scheme.

'Nothing coming in'

image copyrightNigel Wright

Nigel Wright, who has run the Stags Head in central London for 15 years with his partner Joanne, says he is "extremely worried" about having to stay closed beyond April if business rates return.

"There's nothing coming in now, but you've still got to pay standing charges and rent," he adds.

Like many others, he took out a "bounce back" government support loan and will also have to start paying interest on the repayments from June.

As well as missing out on normally busy weeks in the run-up to Christmas, he has had to throw away supplies of bitter and has lager that will go bad in April.

But he says he wants to avoid a repeat of the situation in December, when restrictions were lifted "too quickly" and he had to shut again 12 days after reopening.

He adds that he would prefer a longer lockdown if it means he can reopen permanently, adding: "What's the point of opening for two weeks?"

Government support has previously been extended, of course - but not in the context of a mass vaccination programme being under way.

With the aim of vaccinating the four most vulnerable groups around a fortnight before March's Budget, ministers face a hard choice over precisely how long shutdowns should last.

Hospitality groups have welcomed government support, including new cash grants of up to £9,000 per property announced earlier this month.

After 10 months of closure or restricted trade, pubs and restaurant operators have called on the government to offer a clearer roadmap, setting out when they can resume trading.

"If it won't be until May, then it needs to extend financial support for them to survive and to brewers whose businesses also face jeopardy," said Emma McClarkin from the British Beer & Pub Association.

"Without such support, local pubs in communities across the country will be lost forever."

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