Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Soaking up the virus

On Monday, the government set out a system of tiers of lockdown restrictions to standardise the various local rules in place across England. Licensees in Greater Manchester breathed a sigh of relief that pubs in the area were not to be closed, as had been widely feared. However, further down the Mersey, the “Liverpool City Region”, which includes Halton unitary authority as well as the former county of Merseyside, became the only area of the country to be placed into Tier 3, the highest tier.

Somewhat to many people’s surprise, this does not require the complete closure of pubs, but allows them to stay open and serve alcoholic drinks so long as every customer consumes a “substantial meal”. On the face of it, this seems to represent unfair and arbitrary discrimination against wet-led pubs, many of which have bent over backwards to comply with the ever-changing restrictions. It also reflects a long-standing official prejudice against drinking in pubs as such, and seems to assume that, without a filling meal, they all become scenes of riotous debauchery.

However, without justifying it for a minute, I think the decision was arrived at from the opposite direction. To close all restaurants, as applied throughout April, May and June, would effectively prevent anyone having a sit-down meal outside their own home and would represent a massive restriction on economic activity. However, if table-service restaurants are allowed to remain open, then it would be grossly inconsistent to require food-serving pubs to close, especially given that many are effectively restaurants in functional terms anyway. Yes, it is unfair to wet-led pubs, but to close all pubs while keeping restaurants open would be unfair to food-led pubs.

A rule such as this, though, clearly requires definition. It wouldn’t be seen as acceptable for a packet of scratchings to legitimise a lengthy drinking session. In Ireland it was defined as a food item costing a minimum of €9, which is £8 at the current exchange rate, although more like £6 at purchasing power parity. This, however, is a very arbitrary rule given the wide variations in food prices between different pubs. In some high-end gastropubs, it wouldn’t even buy you a starter, whereas the £3.95 meals spotted by Martin Taylor in the Colliers’ Arms at Cheslyn Hay in Staffordshire, shown below, look pretty substantial to me.

Ireland also had a maximum visit duration of 90 minutes to prevent a meal turning into a lengthy drinking session. Frankly I’ve been in restaurants in this country where you would struggle to get your meal ordered, eaten and paid for within that time-frame.

If you are not going to have an objective yardstick such as price, then you will need to resort to a more subjective definition. Government minister Robert Jenrick* tied himself up in knots by saying that a Cornish pasty on its own wasn’t a substantial meal, but put it on a plate and add chips or salad and it magically becomes one. Few would dispute that a burger and chips would qualify, and the health-conscious should surely be allowed to substitute a salad for the chips. If a burger, then surely also a steak ciabatta, which is in principle the same kind of thing. And a cheese or hummus one for the vegetarians. Before too long, you have a cheese toastie with a couple of lettuce leaves qualifying.

Some might dismiss this as nit-picking, as you know a substantial meal when you see one. In the majority of cases, this is true, but if any regulation is to be enforced by law then it requires a watertight definition. We will see how this evolves over the next few days. But I would imagine under these rules, however interpreted, that most food-led pubs, including Wetherspoon’s, will consider it worth their while remaining open.

(Wetherspoon’s do not yet appear to have updated their app for their Liverpool pubs to reflect any reductions in menu)

* When contesting the Newark by-election in 2014, Jenrick was nicknamed “Robert Generic” as he seemed to perfectly fit the stereotype of the identikit, principle-free, careerist politician. And he succeeded in rising without trace to become a member of the Cabinet in just five years.


  1. Good points.

    Almost impossible to police, I guess. I often pop in Spoons at lunchtime for their chicken bites (about £4) and a pint; it would fill many older people but wouldn't meet many people's definition of a meal.

    I expect to see a few small pubs near Lime Street offering Scouse from an urn with a bread roll !

    1. I don't really expect many pubs to try to take the piss, but licensees obviously need to know exactly where they stand legally.

      To be honest, while I can't claim to have been in any dog-rough pubs over the past three months, I haven't been in any that haven't been making a reasonable effort to comply with regulations.

    2. I think it was the Landlady at the Globe near Lime St who was contemplating the Scouse on the radio yesterday !

      Closer to home, one of the eternal GBG entries, the Queen's Head at Newton, is famed for brown soup and dripping on toast.

  2. Three medium size appetizers are a fairly substantial meal for my wife and I. We often share this way for dinner. Kind of an odd way to write up a rule.

    1. Yes, I've written in the past about how, as you grow older, many standard portions come across as overfacing. Personally I'm quite happy with the 8" pizzas in Spoons rather than the 11" ones.

      Also how about restaurants that serve tapas menus?

  3. Spoons is a restaurant and can remain open
    but is anyone going to police whether you order food?
    Will someone say on my 8th pint that I really should have decided what I'm eating by now?

    Maybe no order without food?
    So I'll need to get 8 pints from the off with my sandwich?

  4. Last week, in Scotland, there was a debate about what constituted a café, as opposed to a restaurant, under their new regulations. Apparently La Sturgeon said "if you're in any doubt, you shouldn't be opening." Maybe this is the principle the government will adopt for England.

  5. Professor Pie-Tin14 October 2020 at 15:00

    The problem with the Irish experience was that if you went out for a drink with the missus you were already €18 down before you got a pint into you.
    Some pubs got inventive - one chain produced a sort of airline food box with a cold meat & cheese or veggie option with dips etc but the reality was if you really wanted to go out for something to eat you'd never choose those pubs that tried to do food.
    And policing the rules fell into the hands of the police and there's nothing an Irish cop likes better than being given a bit of authority to throw his weight around - and a lot of them do have a lot of weight to throw around.Most are not the brightest in the class and only join the force after their father has a word at the golf club.
    My local opened up one weekend and did a tie-up with a nearby takeaway pizza place but it was such a dispiriting effort it closed after three nights.
    For most pubs it was just not worth the faff of trying to ponce around with grub when all the regulars are drinkers.
    Tbh,even when my local re-opened a few weeks ago I couldn't bear to sit inside at a designated table and not stand at the bar with my mates.
    When indoor drinking was banned a week ago the weather was good and I could easily spend a couple of hours in the heated beer garden enjoying a few pints and a cigar.
    But limiting the number of drinkers to 15 irrespective of the size of the outdoor area was just barmy.
    And it led to a Catch-22 situation where longer opening hours were needed to make the idea economically feasible but then the staff need to make this work didn't make it economically feasible with only 15 people on a Saturday night when normally there would have been a hundred.
    The guvnor posted a Facebook rant against the government on Sunday when he closed down ( he had been on the piss all day with us as we knew we were drinking in the last chance saloon so to speak ) but in all honesty if Ireland's wet-led pubs were the last to re-open in Europe they were always going to be the first to close again.
    Remember, this was the country that first introduced the smoking ban.

    1. Not been there since the last millennium, but my impression is that there are far fewer food-led pubs in the RoI than there are in Great Britain. There are plenty of "dining pubs" here that should be able to continue trading.

    2. Professor Pie-Tin15 October 2020 at 13:32

      More choice of food in city pubs these days but most towns and definitely rural pubs eschew anything other than nuts and crisps with booze.
      There are 10 'pub' pubs in my town.Only one ever did food and that's only in the last year or so.One hasn't bothered opening since March.All the rest bar two are now closed.
      A full lockdown has edged closer overnight with a nationwide ban on visits to other people's homes or gardens in almost all circumstances.
      The guvnor of my local WhatsApped this morning. " Open for the 5 'o'clock lads tonight.Side entrance.Mum's the word. "
      I suspecte he's finishing off the last few kegs.
      I intended to get shit-faced and horse into some top shelf action before wobbling off home.
      It may be the last time I see the lads until next year.

  6. If I have to go out and have my supper as well as a few beers at night then so be it. I often do anyway in couple of my locals although this system would be very grossly unfair on pubs like the Bass stalwart Tynemouth Lodge Hotel which has bent over backwards to be 100% compliant with social distancing and hygiene and still provide the customary warm welcome, albeit without many customers. The only certainty is that the people making the rules live in another world and view pub-going drinkers as some sort of unruly herd that constantly need corralling, Probably because their last 'normal' social interactions in pubs were at Uni.

    1. electricpics spot on as usual. I'd feel safer in the Tynemouth Lodge drinking Bass at anytime than I would be in any workplace, school, public transport or cinema on Tyneside. Even the booziest wet led pub has complied with the rules since 4 July in my experience.

    2. From what I remember as a student in the 70s, a lot of drinking was done in the bars on campus and when going into the city we would tend to visit 'student friendly' pubs and keep to our group. So it could be quite possible not to have 'normal' social interactions. The main campus bar was open to anyone, but if you had done a survey I suspect most non-students would actually have been university employees.

  7. New York (the entire state, not just the city) tried that back in July. No idea if it's still going on or how it turned out.


  8. I have visited a few pubs in the centre of Birmingham today, which is in tier 2 of the latest restrictions, (no household mixing etc) most pubs are open but most have more staff than customers. I think some will quickly realise they are wasting their time only serving a handful of punters. Hopefully they get a few more in later for food, but just how many people from the same household / bubble think it's worth the hassle is debatable.

  9. I've seen the legislation, which clarifies a couple of points. When it says that booze is only to be served with a meal, it really does mean 'with', i.e. ordered at the same time - or, presumably, while you're still eating. What's to stop you leaving half a bread roll or a few chips on your plate and insisting that you haven't quite finished yet (as you order your sixth pint), I'm not sure.

    As for what qualifies as a meal, the legislation says (and if you think this is a ridiculous level of detail for The Law to be going into, I can only agree) that a meal must be (at least) the kind of thing that might be served as a main course for a midday or evening meal. Which I think means you can't get away with a few chicken nuggets (sorry Martin) or a single tapa - and is also why a pasty is OK, but only if it's served with something to make it a full meal. (Which suggests that Robert Jenrick has never visited Cornwall, incidentally. Pasties big as your head...)

    Also, you can't eat your meal at the bar, or standing up for that matter. You can eat it at a table or at a counter, but it has to be a dedicated food-eating counter, not the counter drinks are served across. And yes, this is actually specified in the legislation.

    Honestly, it would be simpler just to close the restaurants...

    1. Does the legislation insist that you eat they meal? All of it? Would leaving a few chips uneaten put you at risk of punishment? My mother would have approved of punishment for not "cleaning your platre"

    2. Prior to the change in licensing legislation it was possible to apply for a supper hour certificate to enable diners to eat and drink after the end of the then permitted hours,this was required on a Sunday when alcohol sales stopped at 2.00 pm. Service had to be accompanied by a meal which had been served to the customer. The meal had to be substantial and case law defined a substantial meal as one which would normally be eaten off a plate with a knife and fork. If this rule is adopted then there is no reason why customers and others should be confused. However,one of the problems with an airborne disease is that your chances of catching it are increased the longer that you remain in an indoor space. Sitting down to eat involves people remaining in a pub for longer than they perhaps would if they popped in for a drink so the rule may be counter productive. It is probably better to let the disease spread and leave people to make their own judgements regarding where they go.

  10. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen14 October 2020 at 19:57

    If there is something amiss in the brewing and pub industry that the government is doing that will hurt trade, get SIBA or CAMRA on the case.

    They'll write a strongly worded letter and then when they are literally shaking with rage at a lack of response, they'll write another one.

    1. but what else can they do at the moment ? the government isnt exactly responding much to trade organisations impacted by their ever increasing number of diktats, its not even responding to other levels of regional government about how implementing these tiers is going to work for them with local authorities are finding they are briefed by the media about whats going to happen next instead, its arguably not even listening to MPs be they opposition parties or their own, so what chance does CAMRA or SIBA have of making a meaningful impact ?

    2. CAMRA has yet to properly appreciate that its true enemies now are the government and the public health establishment. Maybe it never will.

    3. Don't be slagging the CAMRAs. They are what they are. Most don't understand what they are and think they are something they are not. Don't let the world campaign fool you.

      They are a nice group of middle class people with mainly leftish views that need a form of booze that makes them more discerning for there own personal validation. Thus they like obscure microbrew in tiny exclusive micropubs where they give each other presentations on the history of IPA. Many of which are interesting first time round, less so on repetition. They really do know a lot about such stuff.

      They are nice harmless people, don't be having a go at them, and really, don't be expecting them to change the world or even much at all.
      They are passengers, not rowers, on the boat of life.

  11. As usual when policy is made up on the hoof it is immediately obvious how riddled it is with loopholes, unintended consequences and perverse incentives.

    I'd really like to see the wet-led pub industry taking a stand and fighting back. But if Social media is anything to go by, it's just become another excuse to wheel out Toryphobic rhetoric that completely misses the point. The problem isn't that we have a Conservative government, it's that we don't fucking have one!

  12. In the 60's in Finland one couldn't have a beer before noon without food. So bars/restaurants had a few sandwiches ready-made for customers, you'd get the beer and the sandwich brought to your table. One was not supposed to eat the sandwich, it would circulate amongst the customers and when it got too rank and moldy it would be replaced. Tourists and foreigners did not know this - oh how we used to laugh at them when they bit into that delicious sandwich...most likely the sandwich was an open one and just a simple ham and cheese thingy.


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