Tuesday 29 September 2020

Barriers to entry

The official NHS test and trace app was launched last Thursday, and has reportedly already been downloaded more than 10 million times. It is now mandatory for pubs and other hospitality venues to display the poster featuring the QR code and to accept usage of the app as a customer sign-in. However, a problem is that the app only works on relatively new smartphones, so anyone with an older phone will be unable to download or use it, let alone anyone without a smartphone, or who doesn’t use a mobile phone at all. The government guidelines make it clear that pubs should continue to operate a manual sign-in system for people unable to use the app.

In England, you do not have to request details from people who check in with the official NHS QR poster, and venues should not ask them to do both. Venues must not make the specific use of the NHS QR code a precondition of entry (as the individual has the right to choose to provide their contact details if they prefer). Should someone choose to check in with the official NHS QR poster, a venue should check their phone screen to ensure they have successfully checked in.
However, I’ve seen a number of reports of venues including pubs refusing entry if the app isn’t used. The phrase “MUST NOT” is an indicator of illegality in the Highway Code; I’m not sure that it quite is here, but it’s certainly strongly deprecating that behaviour.

I struggle to understand why any establishment should choose to do this, given that they’re excluding a substantial proportion of the population. I can only conclude it’s rather like refusing to accept cash, that it’s a sign of how modern and progressive they are, and that they don’t want the custom of the old, the poor, the thrifty and the nonconformist.

There have also been numerous reports of pubs and restaurants insisting on customers downloading an app to order, which raises exactly the same issues of social exclusion. A further problem that has been reported is a pub insisting that customers who sign in manually provide ID to back up their details.

I’ve also seen a report of a pub asking a customer with a medical mask exemption to specify the nature of their condition, which is unquestionably illegal. And surely it won’t be too long before a pub refuses entry point-blank to a mask-exempt person.

We are being exhorted to support pubs in these difficult times, but it has to be questioned whether some are really deserving of support. Obviously people will establish what the restrictions are in places they regularly use, and make their own decision as to whether they find them welcoming, but it makes visiting less familiar pubs a complete lottery.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Time is called

I’m conscious that this blog has turned into a running commentary on the government’s Covid policy, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade it is impossible to avoid or downplay the subject. Back in July, there were hopes that things would start to slowly improve and return to normal but, especially following yesterday’s announcement of draconian new restrictions, we now seem to be descending ever deeper into a dystopian nightmare.

Some people in the industry have tried to put a brave face on the new measures, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they will lead to severe damage. The 10 pm curfew is the time by which all customers must leave, not last orders, meaning that even a pub nominally closing at 11 will lose 90 minutes’ trade, one closing at midnight or later considerably more. Some have talked about it increasing speed drinking, but I suspect the reality is that many customers simply won’t bother coming out at all. People can’t simply come out earlier if they have other things to do first.

For many restaurants, it won’t be just a case of losing a hour’s trade, but of losing one of two sittings during the evening, and thus half their entire business. And one well-known Manchester pub has already announced that they don’t see that it will be worth trading at all while the curfew is in force. From a personal point of view, it will scarcely affect me, as I’m very rarely in pubs in the late evening, but I recognise that for many pubs, especially urban wet-led locals, that’s when they do a major part of their business.

Then there is the requirement for pub customers to wear masks at all times except when seated. I have already discussed this in depth in the context of Scotland, so I don’t propose to go over all of that again. But I have made the point before that what people may grudgingly put up with when doing something essential like grocery shopping may not be so welcome when taking part in what is supposed to be a relaxing leisure activity. This is certainly the experience of one pub landlady.

It is also the case that pubs are likely to be expected to enforce the mask rule, even though in practice it is impossible to do. In general, shops have not made any attempt to do this, taking the view that it is not their job to enforce. Under the 2010 Equalities Act, it is illegal to inquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition or to refuse them service on those grounds. As someone who works in the retail trade says “Where I work, we're told not to confront people who come into the shop without a mask. We have to assume they have a hidden disability, which we can't ask about either.”

But there will be a public expectation for pubs to do it, even though it is a legal minefield. “Look at that pub letting all those people in without masks”. And, to be honest, some people with no valid grounds for exemption will inevitably try it on. If someone states they are exempt, there is nothing a pub can do. This may well lead to an unwelcoming atmosphere for people who do have genuine exemptions, and the possibility of harassment from other customers.

It’s also going to be well-nigh impossible for pubs to make customers don masks to go to the toilet or outside for a smoke, especially once they’ve had a few drinks. But pubs will inevitably be blamed if they don’t. The whole thing is going to cause huge difficulties and put licensees in a very awkward situation.

A further problem is the restriction of all licensed premises to table service only. Yes, some have pointed out that this is general practice on the Continent, and that some bars are successfully doing it already, both of which are true. However, British pubs are simply not set up to operate this way, either in their layout or their working procedures, and it will take some time to adjust, retrain staff and devise new ways of operating. It seems to have been dreamed up by people who never visit pubs and have no idea how they actually function.

It is also by definition more labour-intensive, as multiple trips to the service point now have to be done by staff rather than customers. This is why, on the Continent, the gap between bar and off-trade prices is generally much higher than in this country, despite the lower rates of duty. Yet financially hard-pressed pubs will be in no position to take on additional staff, although in practice the sheer lack of customers may mean this isn’t a problem.

It will also raise the perennial issue of how to actually attract the attention of waiting staff if you want a refill. In the past, many pubs had waiter service on the lounge side, and push-button bells around the walls to summon a server, but these have largely disappeared now, and even where they still exist they are no longer functional. I have written several times before on here of the often lamentable standard of restaurant service in this country, and I wouldn’t hold out much hope of it being any better in pubs with limited numbers of poorly trained staff. If you’re in a location distant from the bar, or in a beer garden, you may have a long wait to attract anyone’s attention.

I wrote last week about how winter is coming for the pub trade, and following this announcement it sadly looks as though it may well turn out to be a nuclear winter.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Winter is coming

To listen to some in the media, you would think that the pub trade is out of the woods now. Drinkers have flocked back since they reopened on July 4th, customers have been queuing out of the door to take advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and they are currently enjoying the beer gardens in this spell of Indian summer weather. However, looking forward, as the nights grow in and the temperature drops, their prospects don’t look anything like so rosy.

Social distancing rules mean that their capacity is still severely limited, and some small or cramped pubs haven’t been able to reopen at all. However, they’re often nowhere near attracting even the reduced numbers they’re permitted. City centre commuting remains way below the level before the lockdown, and many activities that generate footfall for pubs such as spectator sports events and live music concerts have still not restarted. Domestic tourism is greatly reduced, and international visitors have virtually disappeared.

Added to this, many celebrations such as birthdays, christenings, weddings and wakes that produce a lot of business for pubs can only take place in very limited form, and the “Rule of 6” introduced by the government last week further restricts gatherings of this kind.

In view of this, it’s hardly surprising that a wave of closures and redundancies is forecast, with North-West brewer and pub operator Thwaites being one of the first to make a formal announcement. Inevitably, with the furlough scheme winding down by the end of October, there are calls for further financial assistance, and certainly if businesses are unable to function at all the case for support is compelling. But the question has to be asked where the money is going to come from, given that we have already mortgaged our children’s and grandchildren’s future to pay for the first lockdown. And no government can keep businesses on life support indefinitely if there is no realistic prospect of reopening.

At least pubs can open to a limited extent, but that isn’t true of nightclubs, which remain firmly shut, with no prospect of that changing any day soon. Some may dismiss them as an inessential frippery, but like many other inessential fripperies they provide a lot of jobs and economic activity. The Morning Advertiser reports that three in five venues face closure without government support, and the Deltic Group have fired the starting gun by declaring 400 redundancies. Many operators are likely to reach the conclusion that, with no expectation of reopening until well into next year, they might as well put up the shutters and go into liquidation.

Another organisation that has effectively been brought to a standstill is CAMRA. All of its normal everyday activities – branch meetings, socials, presentations, pub crawls and brewery trips – are now impossible. A few half-baked virtual events are no substitute for face-to-face engagement.

Since the beginning of the year, the headline membership figure has fallen by almost 10,000. This isn’t due to people resigning in disgust, but to natural attrition. The main source of recruiting new members is beer festivals, which have been impossible to hold for the past six months. And festivals are also the second largest source of revenue after membership subs.

So, given that, frankly, there’s little prospect of much improvement in the situation until well into 2021, CAMRA is going to have to take a long hard look at its activities and its organisation. It’s no longer a case of just riding out the storm for a few months.

In the short term, further financial assistance may help tide pubs over, but only for a limited period. Eventually, their prospects are entirely dependent on the general health of the economy. The government needs to take the lead in restoring confidence, but unfortunately their announcements last week have only served to intensify the climate of fear, and further restrictions such as curfews are being actively discussed. So there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of any improvement for months, and the pub trade has a very bleak winter to look forward to.

Saturday 12 September 2020

I’m Spartacus

In a further blow to the embattled pub trade, the Scottish government have decreed that, from Monday, customers in hospitality venues will be required to wear face masks at all times except when seated and actually eating or drinking. Bear in mind that in Scotland bars are now supposed to be table service only, so the question of going to the bar doesn’t arise, but even so it is likely to prove significantly offputting to many pubgoers. Going to the pub is, after all, a discretionary leisure activity, not something you have to do like shopping for food.
Given that you are already expected to be seated at all times, it is table service only, there is no piped music, the TV volume has to be muted, there should be no raised voices and definitely no singing, the atmosphere in Scottish pubs is already pretty grim and joyless.

This raises an obvious issue as to how the masks are actually used. The government guidelines say that you should “avoid taking it off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession”, which is precisely what you’re going to be doing in a pub situation. Plus they recommend washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds both before putting on the mask and before removing it. It’s hard to see that being adhered to when Jimmy’s on his fifth toilet visit of the evening. (These are the guidelines for England, but I can’t see those for Scotand being much different).

It’s also extremely problematical how it is going to be enforced, and it carries huge potential for creating flashpoints between staff and customers. The government have acknowledged that some people may have genuine reasons for not wearing a mask, but there is no official scheme of confirming or proving exemption.

In settings where face coverings are required in England, there are some circumstances where people may not be able to wear a face covering. Please be mindful and respectful of such circumstances, noting that some people are less able to wear face coverings, and that the reasons for this may not be visible to others.

These include:

• people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, and
• where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress

The government have avoided stating which medical conditions may entitle someone to an exemption, but lists have been widely circulated which include, for example, Asperger syndrome, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, depression, emphysema and hearing difficulties. Most of the customers of the “Clansman” from “Still Game” would no doubt qualify on multiple counts.

I see many frail-looking, elderly people struggling around the supermarket in a mask who must surely have good cause to claim exemption but, just as with the reluctance to claim means-tested benefits, they probably just don’t want to make a fuss.

It is possible to buy a card stating that you are exempt to provide some visible evidence, but there is no check on anyone’s eligibility. And the guidelines go on to say:

Those who have an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering should not be routinely asked to give any written evidence of this, this includes exemption cards. No person needs to seek advice or request a letter from a medical professional about their reason for not wearing a face covering.
Indeed the Equalities Act 2010 makes it clear that businesses have no right to enquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition, and no right to exclude customers on the grounds of disability. So pubs have no legal ability to enforce the rule. If all their customers turn up and declare that they are exempt, there is nothing they can do about it. “You don’t look very disabled to me” is an incredibly insensitive thing to say to someone with a disability that isn’t immediately obvious. It will also create tension between customers when some object to others being unmasked even if they have an entirely legitimate reason for exemption.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Bolted shut

I was working on a general post about how the pub trade was still nowhere near out of the woods, when the unexpected announcement came that the government had ordered the closure of all pubs and other hospitality venues in Bolton due to a rise in local coronavirus cases. Some of the reporting of this was a touch disingenuous, just saying they would be limited to takeaways, which is rather like saying you can go to a theme park but just buy candyfloss.

Predictably, the headlines were all about pubs, and it seems that this is yet another example of the finger of blame being pointed in their direction, when it’s widely considered that transmission between households meeting in private homes is just as important a factor, if not more.

And it’s not just pubs, either, it’s the whole of the hospitality sector – hotels, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops too. It’s basically putting Bolton back into the dark days of the height of the lockdown. If it’s impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside your own house, or stay anywhere else overnight, it becomes a huge drag on economic activity in general. If applied nationwide, this would cause huge economic destruction.

An increase in reported cases is an inevitable result of more testing. But there’s little sign of it translating into an increase in hospitalisations, let alone deaths. It’s reported that there is a substantial number of false positives, and many positive results come from traces of the infection still being detected in people who recovered from it months ago. It comes across as a panicky over-reaction from blustering tin-pot dictator Matt Hancock. It is quite disproportionate to the actual level of risk.

No time limit has been set for the restrictions, or criteria stated as to when they might be lifted. And the question has to be asked whether affected businesses will be entitled to the resumption of furlough and business interruption payments.

If operators across the country fear they may be subject to arbitrary local lockdowns at the drop of a hat, it will seriously erode confidence in the hospitality trade on both sides of the bar. And any exhortations from the government for people to return to work will just come across as weasel words.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

And you think you’ve got it bad?

Anyone who thinks the licensed trade in England has been badly done to might consider casting a westward glance across the Irish Sea. Regular commenter Professor Pie-Tin has kept us updated on how the Irish Republic, as the map shows, is now the only country in the whole of Europe where you can’t visit a bar just to have a drink, not even outdoors. Apparently they are finally going to allow bars to reopen later this month, although a firm date has yet to be confirmed. And they are going to have to operate under such severe restrictions that many publicans doubt whether it will be worth their while.

Possibly as some kind of sop to the hospitality industry, the Irish government have announced a Stay and Spend scheme that will operate from the beginning of October to the end of April. Presumably this was modelled to some extent on the British Eat Out to Help Out initiative, but it is only a very pale shadow. The government-funded discount is only 20%,not 50% and, rather than being given at the time of purchase, it will be refunded as a tax credit at the end of the year, thus greatly reducing the immediacy of its impact. Plus the minimum spend is €25, so you will need to buy a pretty substantial meal. No getting a Wetherspoon’s dessert on its own, or a single coffee, at half price.

To add insult to injury, they have even introduced a bizarre requirement for pubs and restaurants to keep a record of every single food item purchased by their customers. Ostensibly, the reason is to confirm that customers have actually eaten a meal, which has been allowed for a couple of months provided there was a minimum spend of €9. Not only does this impose a huge bureaucratic burden on hospitality businesses, but it also has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. You can just imagine Public Health itching to get their hands on details of exactly who has eaten what.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Pubs in England have now been able to open for nine weeks, and during August the food-serving ones at least were buoyed by the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. However, they have had to operate under a set of restrictions intended to curb the spread of coronavirus, reducing capacity due to the need for social distancing and imposing other requirements such as recording customer details and maintaining a heightened cleaning regime.

Licensees were given little notice of what was expected and had to improvise a system to deal with this at short notice. To be fair, most seem to have made a reasonable fist of it, coming up with something that meets the spirit of the guidelines while not making customers feel unwelcome. However, in some it seems to have unleashed their inner jobsworth, with restrictions being imposed that go well beyond what the guidelines imply, or are very poorly thought out, and which can have the effect of being very offputting to customers. As Victoria Bischoff wrote this week in the Daily Mail:

But some staff have taken to acting like self-appointed prison guards, barking orders at customers as though they are virus-ridden inconveniences. I’m sure they think they are helping to keep everyone safe. But if people are made to feel nervous and unwelcome, they’ll soon trade expensive rounds (£13.90 for a pint of Neck Oil and an Aperol Spritz in our local!) for a far cheaper glass of wine at home
As both I and other commenters have observed in the past, all too often pubs give the impression of having a sense of entitlement that the world owes them a living. Particularly after lockdown, they seem to assume that customers will be grateful they are open at all and will put up with all kinds of indignities. It’s on things like this where pubs benefit from being part of a large group so that someone in head office can look into it and come up with a coherent system rather than expecting everyone to make it up as they go along.

While I haven’t been in any other chain pubs, in general Wetherspoon’s seem to have made a pretty good job of it, actually improving the ambiance of their pubs by spacing out the tables and introducing partitions, and achieving the requirements of the guidelines without being too intrusive. But they still seem to struggle with organising queues at long bar counters that weren’t designed for it.

Some of the policies pubs have introduced arise simply out a lack of thought, but others clearly come across as deliberate. If you’ve decided to do away with beermats and ditch the charity boxes on the bar, if you’ve stopped taking cash payments and make everyone download an app to order, if you’re insisting on people making an advance booking just to have a drink, if you’ve festooned your pub with yellow tape and half-baked one-way systems, it’s not because the guidelines expect it, because they don’t. It’s because, deep down, you want to. And customers will remember where they were welcomed, and where they were treated like something the cat dragged in.

The systems most pubs have implemented to record customer details leave much to be desired. It wasn’t long before instances of systems being abused and the information collected being used to harass customers started to emerge. Any procedure that expects people to write down their details on a register that can be viewed by all and sundry obviously does not pass muster.

Indeed, very few of the systems I’ve seen meet the twin objectives of complying with GDPR (which is law, not just guidelines) and being accessible to people without smartphones. Again, the best I’ve seen is that operated by Wetherspoon’s, where you have the choice of either scanning a QR code or writing the information down on a slip that is then put into a box where nobody else can see what is on it.