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:
🚨 | BREAKING: SAGE Source: Most likely outcome is June 21 still goes ahead— Politics For All (@PoliticsForAlI) May 28, 2021
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!
🚨 | NEW: Independent SAGE’s Christina Pagel says we should delay the June 21 freedom date by just two months as “it’s not that long to wait”— Politics For All (@PoliticsForAlI) May 28, 2021
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.
Our hourly average was £23.87 today. Totally inundated with customers!🙄— TheStarGlossop (@StarInnGlossop) May 25, 2021
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.