Sunday, 2 August 2020

Tit for tat

It’s reported that a senior scientist advising the government has said that pubs or “other activities” in England may need to close to allow schools to reopen next month. ‘Prof Graham Medley told the BBC there may need to be a "trade-off", with the re-opening of schools seen as a "priority" for children's wellbeing.’

However, it’s hard to see how such a trade-off works in practice. It’s not as though there’s a fixed amount of infection going round, and if you make it easier for it to spread in one environment you have to make it more difficult in another completely unrelated one. Indeed it just comes across as vindictive. If there really was a problem, then why not just ban children and teachers from going to pubs?

If this did happen, it would be a kick in the teeth for a sector that has had to endure nearly four months of closure and even now is struggling to get back on its feet again. It is likely that many operators would reach the conclusion that there was no point in trying to run pubs when they were subject to capricious closures, and simply give up the ghost. And where would the money come from to pay for the business support and furloughing staff? Or would they simply be thrown to the wolves? It also wouldn’t sit well with the attempt to get people back into pubs and restaurants through the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme during August.

Pubs are often singled out by the media as an example of a business sector that is essentially frivolous and that, if need be, we could easily manage without. However, they are just part of the wider hospitality industry that also includes cafés, restaurants, coffee shops and hotels, and it is impossible to decouple them. Indeed many pubs do far more business selling meals than drinks. If it again became impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside the house, or stay anywhere else overnight, the economy would be put back into the deep freeze of the darkest days of the lockdown.

The government has been widely accused of taking a “whack-a-mole” approach to Covid, pursuing various half-baked, headline-grabbing policies while lacking any clear overall strategy. And the official Opposition cannot hold them to account when all they seem to want is more of the same, both more restrictions and more spending.

So far, people have generally responded to the various restrictions placed on them with a kind of resigned acceptance. However, key to all this is a feeling of hope that eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things have, albeit painfully slowly, been relaxed. But if that process is put into reverse, resignation can all too easily turn to despair and then to anger. There is only so much people will put up with.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Junk policy

In an attempt to revive the hospitality trade, the government have announced an Eat Out to Help Out initiative, under which customers of pubs and restaurants will be able to get a 50% discount on food and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday. What a good idea, you might think. You could go out and enjoy some fish and chips, or roast lamb, or a cheddar ploughman’s, followed by some tiramisu or chocolate fudge cake. The only problem is that, apparently, the government don’t actually want you to eat any of those things. Under their proposed anti-obesity strategy, they’re all considered so bad for you that it won’t be possible to advertise them on television before the 9 pm watershed.

It seems that Boris Johnson has been spooked by his own brush with Covid, which has prompted him to adopt “Nanny State” policies that previously had been ruled out. I wrote about the possibility of this happening back in May, and concluded that “any ‘war on obesity’ started by the government will be largely ineffective, will get a lot of people’s backs up, and will create a whole raft of unintended and undesirable consequences.” it also seems particularly bad timing to impose new restrictions when hospitality businesses are already struggling.

It is presented as a crusade against “junk food”, but that is a nebulous concept for which it is impossible to come up with any hard-and-fast definition. In practice, it will to cover foods that are “high in fat, salt and sugar”, which in practice covers many items considered natural and wholesome. I wrote last year how a similar ban on advertising imposed by Transport for London had caught up in its net a company specialising in boxes of fairtrade products, who had had the temerity to include bacon and butter in a photograph. But they felt it was unfair on them rather than drawing a wider conclusion. The whole can of worms is set out in this paper (PDF donwload) from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Fortunately it seems as though small independent businesses will be excluded, as including calorie counts on menus would place an unreasonable administrative burden on them. However, the clamour to bring them within its scope will be unlikely to relent, whatever the wider consequences. And the restrictions on what can be advertised will harm the revenue of already struggling media outlets.

The policy is effectively filleted with his usual aplomb by Christoper Snowdon in this article entitled Boris Johnson’s Absurd Nanny State Crusade:

Finally, it is at least pleasurable to think of all the headaches the government will now have as it tries to turn the dozy ideas of ‘public health’ fanatics into workable legislation. Most of the policies that Johnson is toying with have been dusted down from the fag end of the Cameron era. They were gathering dust for a good reason. They are not just illiberal and ineffective, they are impractical and illogical. Since there is no legal definition of ‘junk food’, the government will find itself in the same preposterous position as Transport for London, which had to ban adverts showing butter and jam last year and even had to censor its own promotional literature to remove images of popcorn and cream.
One of the few consolations is that we will be able to enjoy a lavish helping of Schadenfreude as the whole thing becomes tangled up in its own contradictions.

It’s gesture politics pure and simple, straight out of the “something must be done” school of public policy. But, sadly, it seems that whichever party you vote for, Public Health England always ends up in government. And the fact their sights have currently been trained on food doesn’t mean they won’t return to alcohol in future.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Hollowed out

Unexpected traumatic events often lead to major changes in behaviour and policy, some of which are temporary, while others prove to be permanent. However, at the time it can be difficult to tell which is which. Remember after 9/11 how people were saying that nobody would be building skyscrapers any more? Have you looked around central Manchester recently? On the other hand, nineteen years on, there are still severe restrictions on what you can take on to aircraft in your hand luggage.

Nearly three months ago I came up with a list of likely long-term changes that the Covid lockdown would bring about. I think all my points remain valid but, as I was essentially considering the impact on the licensed trade and the retail sector, something that I didn’t mention was the move from office-based to home working. Yet many commentators are now saying this may represent one of the most significant shifts in society that emerge from it, which will have many implications for the role of city centres.

It’s been widely observed that the recovery from the depths of the lockdown has had a somewhat Polo mint-shaped character. Many suburbs and smaller towns are not far off normal levels of activity, whereas city centres remain deathly quiet. There are various factors behind this. They are places where most of the footfall comes from people travelling in from outside rather than those living nearby. Non-essential shops were not allowed to reopen until the middle of June, which is only six weeks ago, and pubs, cafés and restaurants, which most people would see as an essential part of a shopping trip, came three weeks later. At the same time, compulsory face masks were imposed on public transport, which people are much more likely to use to reach city centres, while they will travel more locally by car. And forcing people to wear masks in shops will make that day out shopping in the West End even less appealing. Plus the level of tourism, both international and domestic, has fallen off a cliff, and tourist attractions are only just reopening.

But undoubtedly the move from office to home has been by far the single biggest factor driving this. This has often been foretold, but has never really happened, but this time it really does seem to be different. It suits employers, as they can potentially save a lot on office rents, and it suits employees, as they are able to avoid the daily grind and cost of commuting. The wider implications for how workplaces function are really beyond the remit of this blog, and it does have to be said that successful home working may be reliant to a large extent on the social capital previously built up in offices, and employees are likely eventually to feel isolated and miss the social aspects of office life. But it is likely that many employers will adopt a system of only expecting employees to come into the office for one or two days a week rather than five, which obviously will have a huge impact in the amount of office space required, and the number of people present at any one time in city centres.

This will have profound implications for major policy areas such as land use planning and the expansion of public transport capacity. It will also affect housing demand, as there will be less need to actually live close to your place of work. And it will impact on a wide range of businesses operating in city centres that service the work-based economy – cafés, restaurants, sandwich shops, convenience stores, dry cleaners, hairdressers and all kinds of general retail outlets that workers use in their lunch breaks or on their way to and from the office. Some of this demand will be taken up by businesses closer to where people live – after all, everybody has to eat – but some is likely to disappear entirely. Although written from an American perspective, this is a very relevant article about how the relative attractions of city and small town are changing.

And one area that is likely to be particularly affected is pubs and bars. Nowadays, the centres of large towns and cities are one of the few locations where pubs really thrive. While lunchtime drinking is now much more frowned upon, there remains a strong demand for the after-work pint, with the streets outside central London pubs often being crowded with drinkers in the early evening. Very often, city workers go on directly to evening activities rather than going home first. And pub visits are often prompted by a desire to meet up with colleagues, and people from other workplaces, outside the office environment. If everyone is isolated at home, the attractions of wandering down the local at six o’clock will be much less. That is, if you even have a local, while in city centres there are pubs to suit every taste. So the death, or at least the severe diminution, of office culture is likely to have a seismic, and largely negative, effect on the pub landscape.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Inching back to normality

It is now just over two weeks since pubs in England were allowed to reopen following the lockdown on July 4th, albeit under restrictions as to how they could operate. On reopening day, there were a handful of reports of minor outbreaks of disorder, but they were probably nothing more than would have happened on a normal Saturday, and were only newsworthy because of the long closure.

The general impression is that trade has been substantially down, with the Morning Advertiser reporting a figure of 40%. That is certainly borne out by my own experience of visiting a number of pubs. Obviously this is not necessarily representative of the overall pattern, but I’d say they varied between doing reasonable business and being extremely quiet.

With one exception, which is a very small place, none were up to their permitted seating capacity. This suggests that those pubs that decided they needed to require bookings for drinkers had been distinctly over-optimistic, apart from perhaps on the first weekend. Each pub has come up with its own interpretation of the guidelines, so you have to pick up the rules on each new visit. You are likely to be greeted with calls to sign a register or form, and to sanitise your hands using the cunningly concealed dispenser that you have just walked straight past.

I have only encountered one put that allocated me to a specific seat, and that was on reopening day – I suspect it may have been dropped since. I have also had no problem in paying with cash in any pub I have visited. I have been surprised that only half the pubs have made any attempt to ask me for contact details, given that so much concern was raised about this aspect beforehand. Maybe this is a good thing, given that evidence is already starting to emerge of contact information being abused.

Two of those that did were Wetherspoon’s, where the contract tracing forms are prominently displayed by the entrance, but customers are not put under any pressure to comp0lete them. In general, Wetherspoon’s seem to have done a good job of complying thoroughly with the guidelines without making their pubs unwelcoming. To my eye, their interiors have been improved and made more intimate by breaking up the wide open spaces through spreading the tables out and putting partitions up between them. Like other pubs, though, they seem to have struggled with organising a queuing system at long bar counters that weren’t designed for it.

One pub I visited had a portable screen that they placed at the bar to enable a customer to stand next to it, which seemed like a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of paying lip service to the rules. In general, the most convivial atmosphere has been in pubs that preserve separate rooms with bench seating around the walls, enabling customers to sit around the edge and carry on a conversation while still maintaining social distancing.

While there is no way of telling people’s relationship with each other, I got the impression that people from different households were meeting up in pubs and sitting together, showing that on the ground they are beginning to ignore the increasingly incomprehensible rules on exactly who can meet whom where and how far they’re supposed to stay apart.

Some pubs continued to provide beermats, either already out on the tables or handed to you individually with your drink, although the majority didn’t. This suggests that doing away with mats falls into the category of “something we can do to show we’re making an effort” rather than having any real justification.

In most cases, access to toilets was unhindered apart from signs reminding people to wash their hands and keep apart from one another. One pub, however, had instituted a single occupancy rule for each of the gents’ and ladies’, and in the gents’ had taped off the urinals, so only the single WC was available for use. You can’t help thinking that this is likely to cause problems if someone needs to use the trap for the purpose for which it was intended!

At least initially, beer quality was good, as you would expect when pubs were all tapping fresh casks, and most seemed to have made efforts to trim their beer ranges to match the expected lower level of demand. However, this is inevitably likely to fall off as the reduced customer numbers take their toll.

The atmosphere in the various pubs I have visited has varied considerably. Personally, I’m quite happy for pubs not to be too busy, and some of them are places I’m happy to spend time in. In others though, it feels as though there’s just a handful of drinkers rattling around in an oversized building, and in one or two certain aspects of their adjustments made me feel less than entirely at ease. Only one, though, was playing piped music at a volume loud enough to require raised voices, which goes against the guidelines.

The fears that restricted capacity due to social distancing requirements would be a major problem have proved largely unfounded, and the real issue is simply the lack of customers itself. I doubt whether many of the reopened pubs can genuinely say yet that they are trading profitably.

The prospects of pubs are very much tied up with wider economy, and until confidence is restored they will continue to struggle. This is especially true in city centres, where the continued high proportion of commuters working from home has led to a sharp fall in demand, not just for pubs, but for a whole range of other ancillary businesses. The government are facing the problem that it is one thing to create a climate of fear that causes people to curb their activities, but something else entirely to unwind it.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Stop all the clocks

CAMRA have stated their intention not to include any information on pub opening hours in the 2021 Good Beer Guide, which is due to be belatedly published at the end of October. The reasoning behind this is that, in the wake of the Covid lockdown, many pubs will be operating different or reduced hours and, given the impossibility of resurveying every pub, the information would thus be extremely unreliable. No details at all are arguably better than incorrect details. This is only planned to be a temporary measure, and the aim is to restore opening hours in the 2022 edition.

However, even inaccurate information does serve a purpose in a negative way by giving an indication of times when you can be pretty sure that a pub will not be open, and thus there is no point in trying to visit. It’s a fair bet that very few pubs will actually be opening longer hours than they did before. There are also many pubs, such as the Wetherspoon’s which make up about 5% of the entries, where the opening hours are firmly established and could be published without any risk of misleading readers. On the other hand, in my experience, the shorter and more unusual the hours that are advertised for a pub, the more likely they are not to adhere to them.

It’s airily said that if you’re concerned about whether a pub might be open, you can easily phone them to check. However, that shows a failure to appreciate the way many people use the Guide in practice. Rather than fixing on a specific pub and planning an expedition to visit it, they are much more likely to browse a range of entries in a town, or along a route, to see which might be worth a visit. If you find yourself in Borchester on a Monday night, you’re not going to phone round nine pubs to check whether they might be open. You’re much more likely just to go to Spoons, which you know will be open. And the information contained on pubs’ own websites and Facebook pages is notoriously inaccurate.

Some have suggested that CAMRA should simply abandon publication of the Guide this year, as the lockdown has brought about such a dramatic change in the pub landscape that it has become more a history book than something of current relevance. However, its unbroken publication over 45 years has become a key symbol of CAMRA’s efforts, and it would seem wrong to simply discard all the effort that has been put into it at ground level. Plus, in the current climate when income from beer festivals has completely dried up, the revenue is important for CAMRA’s finances.

There are cogent reasons why the decision has been taken, but the importance of reasonably accurate information on opening hours should not be understated. It will also inevitably lead some people to decide not to purchase the Guide due to the incompleteness of the information contained in it. And it will make life even more difficult for the dedicated band of tickers of GBG entries.

Maybe it would also make sense to drop the beer listings against each pub, which can be even more inaccurate than the opening hours. But at least it will bring to a temporary halt the interminable debate about whether or not to adopt the 24-hour clock!

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Climate of fear

Earlier this week, the government announced, after much speculation, that they were going to require people to wear face coverings in shops in England from a week on Friday. This seems a somewhat bizarre decision, given that the virus has pretty much burnt itself out now, and people have been visiting shops right through the peak of the pandemic without them. In any case, many experts consider that masks are of very limited effectiveness.

The impression is very much that they have done this in response to public opinion, with many opinion polls showing a clear majority in favour of compulsory mask wearing. However, this isn’t borne out by people’s actual behaviour on the ground. From my observation, well below a quarter of supermarket customers are wearing masks. It seems that many people want the government to force them to do something they’re unwilling to do of their own volition. This is rather akin to those wealthy people who call for higher taxes, but never actually write out any cheques to HMRC themselves, which they’re perfectly entitled to do.

It’s important to note that the rules refer to “face coverings” rather than specifically to purpose-made masks, so it’s perfectly possible to use ones made from old scarves or T-shirts. How effective those will be is obviously highly questionable. No specification is given, so no objection could be raised to wearing the plague doctor costume shown above, or to flimsy items which were only intended as decorative costume adornments. On the other hand, the Welsh government has decided that all public transport passengers will be required to wear three-ply masks, which will need considerable skills in needlework if you want to make them yourself.

The way masks are actually worn also leaves much to be desired. In theory, the disposable ones that seem to be most popular are only supposed to be worn once. Take it off, for whatever reason, and you really should put a fresh one on. But how often is that going to be adhered to, especially since many of the mask zealots in the media keep telling us how easy it is to slip them off and on again? And how often are the home-made ones going to be washed in practice? Once a week if you’re lucky. Plus, the actual disposal of all the disposable masks is going to create an enormous waste problem. It’s also noticeable that all of them seem to have been made in China!

Many people have genuine medical reasons for being exempt from wearing a face covering. For example, experts have warned that people with asthma should not wear masks. But it is likely that they will have to endure bullying and harassment, both from staff and other customers, if they turn up at a shop without one. And many deaf people depend on lip-reading to communicate with others, and are going to be made to feel even more isolated.

People may well grudgingly put up with wearing a mask when nipping round the supermarket for essentials. But it makes going out shopping a much less enjoyable experience, and will act as a serious deterrent to more extended expeditions for leisure shopping, especially for clothing. A month after “non-essential” shops were allowed to reopen, High Streets are still seeing greatly reduced trade, and making shoppers wear masks is likely to bring any hopes of revival to a juddering halt.

Fortunately, so far pubs and restaurants have been excluded from the requirement, but what’s to guarantee that this won’t change in the future? After all, it has already happened in some Continental countries. After only just having reopened, and still struggling with reduced capacity, that would to deal a fresh body blow to the pub trade. Going to the pub is supposed to be an enjoyable leisure experience, not something you’re expected to grimly endure. And the blow to town centre shopping will have a further knock-on effect on pubs.

Some have argued that compulsory mask-wearing will encourage retail activity by instilling a greater sense of confidence, but surely human nature suggests it will have precisely the opposite effect. Far from representing any kind of return to normality, it will be an indicator of an ongoing climate of fear and anxiety.

No specific end date has been set for the measure, or any set of criteria against it will be judged. Indeed, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stated that it may have to continue until a vaccine has been found, which could be never. As the great Milton Friedman said, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program”. Remember that the afternoon closure of pubs, brought in as an emergency measure during the First World War, lasted over seventy years, and income tax, originally introduced to finance the Napoleonic Wars, is still with us.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

A hike too far?

As pubs and pubgoers emerged blinking into the light after the long, grim months of the lockdown, they were confronted with a landscape that was unfamiliar in many ways. Most obvious were all the new social distancing and hygiene measures that had been introduced, and the widely varying interpretations that had been put on the guidelines.

More subtle were the changes to menus, beer ranges and prices that had been implemented. Wetherspoon’s, for example, seem to have increased beer prices by 10p a pint across the board, although it’s highly likely they would have done that in the Spring anyway. So John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Bud Light have now gone up in my local ones from £1.99 to £2.10, although Ruddles Best is still £1.79.

However, at first I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard what was happening in the Sam Smith’s empire, although this report from Middlesbrough seemed to confirm it. So I had to go along to one of my local ones to check it out on the ground, and in most respects the report proved correct, although I wasn’t expected to wear a face mask at the bar and both ladies’ and gents’ toilets were open as normal. Interestingly, I wasn’t asked for any contact details.

There had indeed been a swingeing increase across the board on beer prices, although it wasn’t a flat rate £1 a pint as some had suggested. The 2.8% beers – light and dark mild and Alpine lager - had increased from £1.40 to £2.20. Old Brewery Bitter had indeed gone up by £1 to £3.00, although they didn’t actually have any as apparently “none had been brewed yet”. Double Four Lager, also 4%, was also £3.00, where it had been £2.08 before. Extra Stout and Taddy Lager were now £3.40 as opposed to £2.30, and the premium Pure Brewed Lager had gone up from £3.00 to £4.20. The barmaid suggested to one or two customers that they could try an Alpine/Taddy split, which works out at 3.75% and sets you back £2.80.

It’s often hard to discern any considered strategy, or indeed sense, on pronouncements emanating from Tadcaster, and this will certainly test the patience and the budgets of many of their regular customers. On a personal level, I’m not particularly bothered, as I go there for the congenial atmosphere – comfortable seats, no piped music, TV sport or screaming kids – rather than the low prices. But if many of the other customers are deterred, much of that atmosphere will be lost, and indeed the future of the pubs themselves may be threatened.

The effect won’t be felt evenly across the board. In some of Sam’s Northern pubs in villages and prosperous suburbs, £2 a pint was effectively giving money away to customers who could comfortably, and willingly, afford more, and there may be little difference in the level of trade. Indeed, in such locations everywhere else nearby will still be considerably pricier. However, in some of their town and city centre pubs, and in some of the back street locals in and around Rochdale that Tandleman has been visiting on and off, there is undoubtedly a strong contingent of value drinkers who are likely to react against the price rises, either by transferring their business to Wetherspoon’s or by not coming out at all. Some town centres also have other value pubs that may see an opportunity.

While Wetherspoon’s are undoubtedly now much cheaper for cask beer and John Smith’s, this isn’t the case across their full beer range. Indeed the company in general succeeds in putting across an image of offering low prices that isn’t always borne out on the ground. For example, one of my local branches charges £3.05 for Carling and Foster’s, although the one nearest to the Sam’s pub is £2.69. Plus in Wetherspoon’s people end up sitting in solitary splendour on isolated tables rather than exchanging banter around a room lined with bench seating, and the management are likely to frown even more than normal on rearranging the furniture.

In general these increases will still leave Sam’s prices on a par with, or just below, those of their nearby competitors. It remains to be seen to what extent customers were there just for the cheapness as opposed to valuing other aspects of what the pubs provided. It’s not impossible that in the long term it may come to be seen as a necessary correction to prices that had become seriously out of kilter with the rest of the market and weren’t really bringing in that much extra trade. Or it could prove to be unhinged commercial suicide. Only time will tell.

It should also be remembered that Sam’s weren’t always known for their cheap prices. Going back a generation, they were on a par with the other family brewers. But a series of policy decisions in the present century have led to them overtaking Holt’s to offer by far the cheapest draught beer in tied houses. It’s certainly what Humphrey’s namesake on “Yes Minister” would call a “bold” experiment, and it will be interesting to see whether the policy holds, or whether there will be a reverse ferret once he finds some of his pubs completely devoid of customers. There is certainly a precedent for this in their backtracking on the Great Pie Fiasco.

(The photo shows a group of probable value drinking codgers in the Olde Blue Bell in Hull).

Edit: Tandleman has, entirely independently of me, discussed the same subject, and reached some of the same conclusions.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Where were you when I needed you?

Last week, I ran a Twitter poll on people’s attitudes to returning to the pub yesterday, the results of which are shown below. What is perhaps surprising, and disappointing, is that as many as 34%, from an audience presumably more favourably inclined towards pubs than the population at large, responded “Not for a long time”.

Now, I would strongly defend everyone’s right to act according to their own conscience. But everyone must recognise that action, or inaction, has consequences. If you’re someone who never much cared for pubs in the first place, you can’t really be criticised for staying away now. But if you have professed support for pubs in the past, and you are under 60 in reasonable general health, you really need to consider your position.

While the death toll from the pandemic has been appalling and tragic, it has overwhelmingly affected the very old and those already in poor health. It has killed just 300 healthy people in the UK under the age of 60. The fatality rate has been 1 in 9,000 for under-65s, but 1 in 250 for over -65s. Now, when the rate of infection is greatly reduced, you are probably more likely to be killed crossing the road on your way to the pub than from contracting Covid-19 when you get there. To still stay away on the grounds that it is not safe represents a warped and exaggerated perception of risk.

The next few months are going to be a very trying time for the pub trade, with reduced capacity from social distancing and a lack of general consumer confidence combining to limit customer numbers. The rush of enthusiasm on reopening day is unlikely to be maintained for very long. Pubs will need all the support they can get. By all means make your own decision, but don’t then complain six months down the line when many of the pubs you used to enjoy are no longer there. More than ever before, “use ‘em or lose ‘em” is a critical message.

Apart from the over-caution, I was taken aback by the wave of rancid snobbery directed on social media at people who had ventured out to the pub. Just look at some of the responses to this tweet from a Manchester Evening News reporter:

Incidentally, the pub in question was the Shiredale in North Manchester. And, while some people said it appeared grim and uninviting, to my eye it very much looks like a Proper Pub. These responses prompted several people to man the barricades in defence of pubgoers, even though it wasn’t something they personally cared for. Many so-called beer enthusiasts who may in the past have given lip service to supporting pubs seem to have gleefully joined in with both of these tendencies. They may well have found they quite enjoyed staying at home during lockdown enjoying supplies of draft craft beer takeouts from their local micro bar, absolved of any need to actually go out and visit any pubs and mix with the dreaded hoi polloi.

Even worse than this were the snarky comments along the lines of “you won’t be saying that in two weeks’ time” which in effect is wishing illness and death on others.

Anyway, on a more pleasant note, the post title gives an excuse for another trip down memory lane with the Bangles. And Susanna Hoffs is five months older than me!

Friday, 3 July 2020

Keeping in touch

A week ago last Tuesday, the government confirmed that pubs in England would be allowed to reopen under certain conditions tomorrow, Saturday July 4th. Later in the day they issued the detailed guidance on how this was expected to work. I have deliberately avoided returning to this subject in the meantime because everything is speculation, and we won’t really know how it will turn out until it actually happens.

However, the point that has probably led to most discussion is contained on Page 11, where it says “You should assist this service by keeping a temporary record of your customers and visitors for 21 days, in a way that is manageable for your business, and assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed.” Clearly, there is a strong justification for this, but it is something that has never been required of pubs before for walk-in customers, and the trade has spent the following week running around like headless chickens trying to come up with ways to implement it. It also creates serious privacy implications that should not be lightly dismissed.

Eventually, yesterday the official guidance on collecting customer details was produced, which is considerably more straightforward than many people had imagined. The key details are shown below. Note that it states “No additional information should be collected for this purpose”, so pubs will be going too far even to ask for addresses.

This is pretty much what Wetherspoon’s have said they will be doing. If some people write down Donald Cummings or Dominic Duck, so be it, but in reality I’d expect a high level of compliance, as making up a false identity is actually much more hard work than telling the truth. This little pad used by a German restaurant points the way, although even the address field is superfluous.

Compare this with the diktat issued by the Prince Albert pub in Wolverhampton, which goes well over the top. In particular, demanding to see “official” ID, except for purposes of age verification, seems completely unreasonable, as is demanding a temperature check and asking for date of birth. So I think my custom would probably go to the nearby Great Western, which is a far better pub anyway. In any case, I have no current photo ID.

On a related note, the various CAMRA branches in Greater Manchester have got together to produce a very useful one-page listing of which pubs and bars are expected to be open tomorrow and during the coming weeks, which is an extremely praiseworthy effort. You should be able to find somewhere to have a pint in most areas. In particular, local family brewers Joseph Holt are opening all but 13 of their pubs, as listed towards the bottom of this page.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Sucking out all the joy

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of speculation about whether pubs would actually be allowed to reopen on July 4th and, if so, what kind of restrictions they would have to operate under. The last time I ventured into this territory in discussing the possibility of opening up beer gardens, I was shot down in flames by a negative announcement within a few hours of publishing my blog, so I’ve steered well clear of it since. Remember that, if we were to believe numerous press reports, it would have been possible to have a drink in a beer garden from today onwards.

However, the weight of speculation is now very strongly that pubs will be able to reopen from July 4th, and indeed many brewers have restarted production of cask beer. An official announcement is expected tomorrow. It is likely, though, that they will have to adhere to a variety of onerous restrictions which include, if we are to believe press reports, expecting customers to order and pay via an app, requiring them to book pub visits in advance, and making them sign in and out each time they go to a pub.

As Tandleman points out here, some of these ideas give the impression of having been dreamed up by people who have little idea how pubs actually work and imagine they are something very like table-service restaurants. I asked my Twitter followers in a quick poll whether they would find being expected to order via an app would be a significant deterrent to visiting pubs for a drink. Wjhile a majority thought it was OK, a substantial minority considered that it would be offputting.

Restrictions of this kind may to a greater or lesser degree be workable, although clearly they would be much easier to implement in large chain pubs than small independent ones. Signing in would inevitably lead to a sudden upsurge in pubgoing by Mickey Mouse and Mike Hunt. And they may go completely against some companies’ established business models ;-) Some licensees have expressed concern that, if a single customer ended up testing positive, they may be forced to close their pub for fourteen days, thus putting their reopening plans back to square one. And is it reasonable to expect customers, even if they have an up-to-date smartphone, to download a separate app for each pub they visit? It may be acceptable for regulars, as indeed signing-in would be, but it would reallyput a dampener on chance pub visits.

The whole thing transforms pubgoing into a much more considered and premeditated activity rather than something spontaneous and fun, which is what it should be. During 2019, I visited 207 different pubs, more than half of which were new to me. Many of those visits weren’t even planned an hour ahead, let alone days. In plenty of cases it was just a case of coming across a likely-looking pub in an unfamiliar town. And I do not see why I should be required to identify myself or explain my purpose if I just wander into a pub at random.

During the lockdown we have had to endure numerous unpalatable restrictions, such as queuing for shops, keeping well apart from each other and being strongly urged not to pay in cash. We have gritted our teeth and put up with it, because those were things that we needed to do. But going to the pub for a drink is a discretionary leisure activity. Nobody actually has to do it. And if it is reduced to such a joyless, regimented process it is highly likely that many people will simply conclude that it’s not worth bothering with.

Edit: it seems that Telegraph cartoonist Matt has spotted the potential pitfalls of customer registration:

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

A breath of fresh air?

There have been a number of reports that the government is planning to give the go-ahead for pubs to open outside drinking areas from 22 June, which is less than two weeks away. This has been backed up by several breweries such as Black Sheep and Palmer’s announcing that they were restarting brewing cask beer. This has to be seen as good news, and a significant step on the long road back to normality. It was always likely that outside areas would be allowed to open first. However, it’s important not to get carried away.

The first potential problem is obviously the notoriously fickle British weather. While we’ve all been in lockdown, we’ve enjoyed about the driest and sunniest Spring in living memory. But what’s the betting that, as soon as outside drinking is permitted, the heavens will open for weeks on end? And, even if it’s dry, outdoor drinking isn’t that much fun if it’s a bit chilly with a stiff breeze. Plus, unless the social distancing rule is relaxed from 6’6” to 3’3”, the drinkers in the beer garden are going to be pretty thin on the ground.

While some pubs have large outdoor areas, realistically most don’t, particularly in urban areas. So it’s only a very partial benefit for the pub trade. The suggestion has been made that streets could be converted into temporary pubs with seating spilling out on to the road. However, in reality the locations where that could work are pretty limited. Many town-centre streets with pubs on them have already been pedestrianised anyway. Roads fulfil an essential economic function and, with shops reopening next week, are going to be not far off normal levels of traffic. Even if this could be achieved, it would require expensive and time-consuming traffic diversions. Maybe pubs could put a few tables out on the pavement, but is that really going to generate a worthwhile return on an urban street?

Shoppers might not appreciate having to run the gauntlet of boisterous pub regulars who are generally safely confined inside. And, even if you could get hold of it, would it really be worth investing in a stock of outdoor seating for what was likely to be only a few weeks’ trade?

Whether you like it or not, TV football is one of the biggest draws in pubs, and the Premier League is scheduled to restart next week on 17 June. But, even if you could, there’s not much point in showing the football for which you’ve paid an arm and a leg to all and sundry in the street. A large chunk of your normal trade won’t come back until they can go indoors to watch the telly.

So, by all means welcome it and take advantage if you get the opportunity. But don’t imagine for a minute that outdoor drinking alone is going to be the salvation of the pub trade. We won’t be able to say we’ve truly returned to normality until we can huddle together with our friends with a few drinks inside a pub.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Beer lines

Over the past eleven weeks of the lockdown, queuing, especially to get into supermarkets, has become an unwelcome fact of life for most of us. While nothing has yet been definitely announced, it is looking as though, even if pubs are allowed to reopen next month, it will be under some kind of social distancing rules that will limit capacity. This creates the possibility of having to queue to get into pubs and other hospitality venues. So I created a couple of polls on Twitter to see what people thought of the idea of queueing for pubs and restaurants.

As you can see, the general reaction was not enthusiastic. The results were fairly similar between pubs and restaurants, although in theory you might expect people to be more willing to do it for restaurants as eating is a necessity, while having a drink isn’t. Indeed there were more people prepared to do it for as long as it takes for pubs than for restaurants.

I can quite understand this reaction, as I detest being forced to queue for anything, and have been known to walk out of pubs if I have to wait too long to be served. There is also a conceptual difference from queuing for a supermarket or drive-thru fast food outlet, as in those situations the is a steady throughput of customers, so you can expect to make steady progress, whereas with a pub the customers already inside the building might be settled in for a long session, especially given that pub-crawling will become impossible.

However, even before the lockdown, people were prepared to queue for a long time to gain access to venues like beer festivals or nightclubs where there was a one-out, one situation. And, in recent weeks, we have become inured to queuing in a variety of situations where we never expected to. So the enthusiasm for queuing to get into Wetherspoon’s might well turn out to be greater than the polls suggested. And, when the “non-essential” shops reopen a week on Monday, I would expect to see some very long queues outside the likes of Next and Primark.

I’m not going to comment on the realities of the socially distanced pub until we have a clearer view of what to expect, and when we can expect it.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Striking a happy medium

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote how taking a whole population approach to the “war on obesity” could have many undesirable consequences. One aspect of this is that the higher the number of calories in any food item, the more it is considered to be a bad thing. However, to a large extent, calories are what food is all about. The quantity of calories is a rough approximation of the total amount of nutrition it contains. We need a certain number of calories to survive, and chomping away at celery and lettuce isn’t going to provide much sustenance. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, until maybe three generations ago, for the majority of the human race getting hold of sufficient calories to sustain them was a daily struggle.

Now, of course, we are in general more fortunate and prosperous, and more people find they’re eating too much than too little. If you want to control your weight, then obviously it is desirable to know how many calories your food contains. But publication of calorie information can be a double-edged sword, with people who are less weight-conscious using it as a yardstick to judge how much value for money various dishes offer.

Very often, a lower-calorie alternative to a standard product is simply less appetising, and eating a smaller portion of the full-fat version may be a better option if you can exercise the necessary self-restraint. Many products that boast of being low in calories actually achieve this simply by containing less in the first place. This is particularly true to some potato-based snacks that can be puffed up to appear bigger while weighing no more.

A parallel can be drawn with the alcoholic content of drinks. The fact that they contain alcohol is, by definition, the feature of alcoholic drinks that distinguishes them from soft drinks. That is their fundamental point. Yet it is not a simple case of people either gravitating towards those with the highest alcohol content, or indeed the lowest.

Wine and spirits tend to come in a relatively limited range of strengths, and little is made of the differences between them, although I have seen some complaints about the high alcohol content of some full-bodied red wines. Beer and cider, by contrast, are available across a wide spectrum of different strengths.

However, it’s certainly not the case, as some commentators seem to imagine, that most drinkers gravitate towards those with higher strengths. Indeed, it’s only really a subset of problem drinkers who take that attitude, and most beer sold is of relatively modest strength. Beer is not just a method of delivering alcohol, it also offers flavour and refreshment and, particularly in social settings, there’s a strong incentive for the effects of alcohol to only be felt subtly and gradually.

People tend to view beers as falling within particular categories, so wouldn’t be particularly bothered about choosing a 3.7% ordinary bitter over a 4% one, or the other way round. This explains how the brewers of Stella Artois were able to reduce its strength from 5.2% to 4.8% with very little consumer kick-back (prompted, of course, by a certain amount of government arm-twisting). The fact that it is widely considered to be not what it was has much more to do with cheapening the recipe. But cut it to 4% and few would be interested any more. On the other side of the coin, it its dying days the strength of Boddingtons Bitter was upped to 4.1% in a bid to reverse its decline, only for it to lose more sales as drinkers felt that took it out of the ordinary bitter category. Indeed, the dining pub chain Brunning & Price dropped it as a house beer because their customers, many of whom were drivers, found it just that bit too strong.

2.8% might be an acceptable strength for a mild, but the various pseudo-bitters that were introduced at this strength to take advantage of the lower duty rate found few takers. If you essentially wanted an ordinary biter, the low strength was a deterrent, while those seriously wanting to cut consumption would go the whole hog for an alcohol-free beer. It is possible to brew a tasty light mild at around 3.0%, but none of these beers really cut the mustard as bitters.

As with food, if you’re aiming to limit your alcohol intake, it may well be a better option to drink less of the normal-strength version, than the same quantity of the less appealing one that has a lower alcohol content. While we have alcohol-free beers, which provide at least some of the sensation of drinking the normal variety, it’s very hard to conceive of calorie-free food that would be remotely appetising.

Friday, 22 May 2020

If you reopen it, will they come?

Earlier this week, I blogged about a Twitter poll I was running about people’s attitude to returning to pubs post-lockedown. This has now finished, with the following outcome:

Ye Olde Fleece Inn in Kendal ran a similar poll with perhaps surprisingly different results: The figure for “I would go now” is 43% in my poll, but only 32% in theirs. However, if you take the first two options as being equivalent, it’s 64% in mine but a full 81% in theirs. Even so, if two-thirds of customers are willing to return, it should provide a reasonable foundation for business.

I speculated on whether attitudes varied according to how often people went to pubs, which could potentially distort the result. This prompted me to create a two-dimensional poll on SurveyMonkey breaking down the answers according to frequency of pubgoing. However, the result was that it made virtually no difference, with 71% being willing to return to pubs in July, with or without the weighting. Realistically, pubs aren’t going to open before then anyway.

(It should be pointed out that the free version of SurveyMonkey limits the total number of responses)

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Front or back of the queue?

A concern that has been expressed by many in the trade is that, even when pubs are allowed to reopen, many of their previous customers may be very wary of returning to them due to continued fear of contracting the virus. A number of surveys have been created to gauge the strength of this feeling, including one I did myself that finishes tomorrow.

However, a drawback of surveys of this kind is that they make no allowance for how often people actually visited pubs in the first place. This is something we saw at the time of the smoking ban, when a number of surveys showed that a majority of people would visit pubs more after it was implemented. This may well have been true, but if you only went once a year before, but then stepped it up to twice a year, it wouldn’t make much difference overall. And, as we all know, the actual effect on the trade of pubs was the exact opposite of what these surveys suggested.

So I thought I would create a two-dimensional poll that identifies people’s responses depending on how often they visited pubs before the lockdown, as shown in the panel below. It’s limited to a maximum of 100 responses, so I’ll attempt to analyse the results once it’s complete.

Edit: I have now closed the survey and removed the web form as it has reached the maximum number of responses.