However, we are where we are, and the pub trade have to make the best of a bad job rather than crying into their beer. The first milestone is on 12 April, no less than seven weeks away from the announcement, when outdoor opening, including off-sales, will be permitted. It is hard to understand why off-sales weren’t allowed earlier, as they continued during the two previous lockdowns. That is still a long wait, and unless significantly more support is forthcoming in next week’s Budget no doubt many more pub operators will give up the ghost. Speaking personally, the thing I’m most looking forward to is a haircut, as I’m increasingly resembling a member of an early 70s prog-rock band!
POLL: What is your opinion of the government's unlocking roadmap as it applies to the pub trade?— Missing-the-Pub Curmudgeon 🙂🍻 (@oldmudgie) February 22, 2021
Towards the end of Lockdown #1, the possibility of outdoor-only opening was mooted, and I wrote here about the issues it raised, an obvious one being the notorious fickleness of the British weather. The Morning Advertiser reports than only 40% of pubs will be able to take advantage, and Sacha Lord, the Greater Manchester night-time economy adviser, makes the point that it represents a kind of class distinction, as urban boozers are much less likely to have extensive beer gardens than dining pubs in leafy suburbs and villages.
This stage will require pubs to operate table service – it certainly won’t just be a case of serving people pints for perpendicular drinking in the street. This makes swift, responsive service a challenge even indoors, and if you’re in the far reaches of an extensive beer garden you may have a long wait for a refill. And customers will still need to go inside to use the toilets, unless pubs install a battery of portaloos in the garden.
The government have indicated that “outdoors” will be defined in the same way as under the smoking regulations, so a covered area with two out of four sides open will be judged acceptable. So we can expect a rush on suppliers of marquees, umbrellas and temporary shelters. Inevitably this will lead to demands for even further restrictions on smokers, ignoring the fact that for thirteen years they were forced to drink outside at times when nobody else wanted to.
The fickleness of the weather will also pose a challenge for selling cask beer, as it will make the level of trade far more variable than normal. A few days of cold, wet weather may leave you with several largely unsold casks, while a heatwave could clear you out. Having said this, if pubs are in a position to make good use of outdoor facilities, as many are, it does present them with an opportunity that they should make the best use of. And a sunny weekend could prove a goldmine.
Then, on 17 May, pubs will allowed to open indoors, but it is important to remember that this will effectively be under last year’s Tier 1 restrictions, with social distancing, table service and mandatory masks. As I wrote at the time, this results in a regimented, cheerless experience that largely destroys the pleasure of the swift, casual pint. A dining pub can cope without too much problem, but many smaller wet-led pubs reported that the atmosphere was totally gone, as was their profitability. When this came in last year, I largely stopped going to pubs, certainly not to make speculative visits, and I doubt I’ll be particularly keen to rush back in May.
We are told that all restrictions will be removed on 21 June, which fortunately is three days before my birthday. But, unless the requirement for masks on public transport is dropped at the same time, my celebratory pub crawl will definitely be confined to Stockport! This will mean that the pub trade has either been shut entirely, or operating under severe limitations, for a full fifteen months. However, this has been portrayed in some quarters as giving the green light to a kind of bacchanalia, so it’s not difficult to imagine the desiccated sociopaths of SAGE having kittens and decreeing that the Tier 1 restrictions need to continue throughout the summer. I’m not making a prediction, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen, but don’t say you haven’t been warned!
I have seen talk of this causing a “summer wave”, but surely, given that respiratory viruses always lose their effectiveness in warmer weather, and that by then a large majority of the adult population will have been vaccinated, this is very unlikely. If it does turn out that the impact of the virus has by then become trivial, and we are able to enjoy the second half of the year to the full, then we may look back on the preceding fifteen months as just a bad dream. A successful and prosperous reopening of the economy will erase a lot of bad memories. But only time will tell.