Saturday 29 May 2021

Toying with expectations

Just over three months ago, I wrote about the government’s painfully slow roadmap to unlocking the economy, and in particular the hospitality trade. Some interpreted this as simply a moan about the glacial pace, and indeed to some extent it was. The mantra of “data not dates” seemed to only apply in one direction and, despite a very swift fall in infections and deaths, no opportunity was taken to bring the key milestones forward. However, I also said that, at the end of the day, what people will remember is whether we reached the destination in the end, rather than how quickly we got there.

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.
The first two major steps – allowing outdoor drinking on 12 April, and then indoor drinking under tight restrictions on 17 May – both happened according to plan. There were reports that some ministers had wanted to delay indoor opening due to the threat from the “Indian variant”, but this never actually seemed likely to come to fruition. But now, three weeks away from the supposed final step of removing all restrictions, things are starting to look much more cloudy. I think I was being quite prescient when I said:
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!...
Of course the Indian variant is something that shouldn’t be casually dismissed, but so far its impact seems to be fairly localised and there’s no evidence it’s getting out of control. Covid-related deaths continue to average less than ten a day across the whole of the UK, and the increase in reported cases is mainly due to a programme of surge testing in affected areas. Most of those testing positive are relatively young and thus at little or no risk. There are certainly no grounds for using it as an excuse to abandon the whole unlocking plan.

Yet we are seeing all kinds of conflicting reports coming out, which are toying with people’s expectations and leaving us none the wiser as to what is actually likely to happen. On the one hand, we are told that everything is still going according to plan:

But, on the other hand, some scientists are calling for a two-month delay: It may not be that long to wait for her, but for many pubs it would mean missing out on full trading for a second summer season in a row. And remember that “Independent SAGE” was the body set up because they felt that Chris Whitty and company were being too lax on Covid restrictions!

Today it has been reported that the government are considering diluting the plans by relaxing some of the social distancing guidelines, but maintaining the requirement for masks. Surely, though, the mask mandate is a key plank of the whole apparatus of restrictions, and no thought seems to have been given as to how this would impact on hospitality. Ending capacity limits means allowing perpendicular drinking, but that is completely incompatible with expecting people to wear masks.

Some pubs have reported fairly healthy trading in the first two weeks of indoor opening, but many others are finding things desperately quiet. Look at these two accounts from a pair of award-winning regular Good Beer Guide entries in the North-West:

Many thousands of pubs, especially wet-led ones, are completely unviable while these restrictions remain in force.

Nothing has yet been decided, so all is still to play for. But there is now a serious risk that the 21 June target will slip. This isn’t just a case of whether punters can have a drink at the bar – it is whether many people will have a viable business at all, which must be a hugely stressful situation, and makes forward planning impossible. If they lose another summer season, many pubs are unlikely to make it to Christmas. Over the past fifteen months, hospitality has consistently been treated as a scapegoat and been about the last sector to be unlocked, despite no evidence of playing a disproportionate role in spreading infection. Nothing seems to have changed. And my hoped-for birthday pub crawl of Stockport on 24 June is looking in serious doubt.

Unless there was clear evidence of infections rocketing, a delay would involve a major loss of credibility and political face on the part of the government, and hopefully this will lead them to draw back from the brink. The whole point of setting a leisurely timetable was that the public could have confidence it would be achieved.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Reservations about reservations

Although pubs have now been allowed to reopen indoors, the requirements for table service and continued social distancing mean that they are unable to operate at anything like full capacity. To make the best use of that capacity, many have introduced advance booking systems where they didn’t before. And this has led to the inevitable complaints about customers making bookings and failing to turn up.

If you don’t contact the pub in advance to cancel, this is of course pretty thoughtless and inconsiderate behaviour. I’m not defending it for a minute. However, if it really does cause a serious problem for pubs, then surely the remedy is in their own hands, to require people making bookings to give a deposit in advance which is not refundable unless they give sufficient notice of cancellation.

Many will reply that it isn’t quite that simple, and undoubtedly it isn’t a one size fits all situation. There are two different scenarios – making bookings for food and just for drinks. Booking for meals is well-established and any pubs operating it will be used to a certain level of no-shows.

Booking for drinks service, on the other hand, is more of a novelty, though, and something pubs may feel is forced on them by reduced capacity. I can’t say I’m a fan of the idea at all, but it’s maybe understandable that a pub feels they would prefer to serve a free-spending party of six rather than a solitary codger occupying a whole table while nursing a pint. However, people may feel less compunction about cancelling a drinks booking rather than one for a meal, and there have been stories of people making multiple bookings and choosing the one they fancy most on the night.

Pubs may feel that requiring a deposit is going to put customers off making bookings in the first place. That may be true to a limited extent, but if people are deterred by it, it suggests they weren’t entirely committed to their plans in the first place and thus more likely not to turn up. Pubs have to make a judgment of balancing one factor against the other.

And, in general, if you are accepting walk-in customers as well as bookings, a cancellation doesn’t impact all that much on your earning capacity if the space can be taken by other customers. It is a more serious issue if you are operating on an advance booking only basis. As a general rule, unless you’re supremely confident about filling all your space, operating a mix of bookings and walk-ins will minimise the downside risk.

So I return to my original point, that customers cancelling bookings is an unfortunate fact of life, and if you feel it causes a serious problem for your business the solution is a simple one of requiring deposits rather than just moaning about it on social media. And Wetherspoon’s seem to get along fine without taking any advance bookings at all.

Edit 21/05/2021: It has been pointed out on Twitter that the EPOS systems used for card payments in many pubs may not accept remote payments. That may well be true, but I’ve been making card payments over the phone for thirty years, so surely it isn’t an insurmountable problem for pubs to do it if it’s important to them.

Monday 17 May 2021


As of today, pubs in England will once more be able to welcome customers indoors, although they will still have to operate table service. Pubgoers will also be legally obliged to wear a face mask on entering a pub until they are seated (unless exempt) and also if they get up to visit the toilet or go outside for a smoke. It is very hard to see how the act of putting a mask on as you walk in from the street and taking it off again thirty seconds later is going to make any difference to the spread of the virus. Are we expected to believe that it freely circulates at head height, but not at shoulder level when people are seated?

Even if you accept the rationale for masks, the way people are expected to use them in pubs goes completely against the official guidelines. “Avoid taking it off and putting it on again in quick succession,” they state. But even if you only make one toilet visit during your stay in the pub, you will still go through that sequence three times. It will be considerably more if you’re settled in for a long session.

I’ve seen teenagers in the street ask if any of the group has a mask on them so they can borrow it to go in the chippy, and it’s not hard to imagine the drinking school of codgers in Spoons dong the same for a fag break. What is more, the guidelines recommend that you should wash your hands before putting on a mask. But, in a pub, you can’t do that without visiting the toilet, for which you will need a mask. The whole way they will be used in pubs is completely at variance with the pious hopes of the official advice.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, rather than having any impact on disease control, this charade is basically a means of psychological manipulation intended to perpetuate a sense of crisis. Hopefully in practice many pubs will end up turning a blind eye to it, as plenty of shops already do, although obviously they won’t want to advertise the fact for fear of attracting a wave of censorious finger-pointing.

However, given that it has been reported that the legal requirement for masks will come to an end on 21 June, in line with the roadmap, it will be interesting to see how committed pubs remain to enforcing it, and customers to adhering to it, as the deadline approaches. This of course has now been cast into doubt by the Indian variant, but it remains to be seen whether this will actually throw the timetable off track. No doubt I will return to that subject in the coming weeks.

Saturday 1 May 2021

How would you like it, then?

Al fresco drinking gets off to a storming start in Scotland

Around the time of the implementation of the smoking ban, the question was often asked of drinkers who supported it whether they would be happy go outside to have a pint. The response was usually that it was a ludicrous and implausible scenario, and that the two things are entirely different.

However, that is exactly the situation that currently prevails in Scotland. You can go into a pub to eat a meal or have a soft drink (at least until 8 pm), but if you want an alcoholic drink you have to step outside. The same applied for a short period in Wales last year, and was mooted for England too.

Yes, it is only temporary, but it is a real-life example of consuming alcohol being seen as an undesirable activity. In a pub. Let that sink in.