Boris Johnson’s English government has outlined its proposals for lifting the Covid lockdown order. From December 2nd England will move to a regional tiered system of restrictions. Currently this plan is to stay in force until March 2021. Much has been written this year about lockdowns, closures and economy but I want to highlight the farcical situation that is facing the English hospitality industry. I emphasise English because Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own rules.
Before the second national lockdown in England a curfew of 10pm had been imposed on pubs and restaurants and other establishments serving alcohol. This was not a new measure, much of Europe had also imposed night time curfews and bans on the sale of alcohol in a belief that it would slow the spread of Coronavirus. In my opinion, this did nothing to effectively slow the spread of the virus but instead put massive pressure on hospitality businesses and police resources.
Historically England has had fairly tight licensing laws and it is only in recent years that pubs have been allowed to set their late night opening hours – previously they were obliged to stop serving at 11pm with all drinks finished by 11.20pm. The laws were relaxed partly in order to stagger the number of people leaving at the same time and hitting the streets. However, if you have been in an English town centre on a Saturday night you will have seen numerous police and ambulance crews tending to scores of drunk people.
In these Covid times pubs are only allowed to offer table service; there is no standing at the bar and no going up to the bar to order drinks. Imagine, if you will, this scenario. You are sitting in a pub with your friends, in a group of no more than 6, it’s 9.45pm and the call for last drinks has just gone. You now have fifteen minutes to finish your drinks and leave the pub.
As you step through the front door to the street every other pub and restaurant has just emptied of customers and there are now several thousand people on the street. All these people are well fueled with alcohol and looking for somewhere to go to finish their evening out while the police attempt to keep order and get people off the streets. Taxis, buses and trains are crowded and social distancing is a vague concept of the past.
The new tiered system does nothing to help already struggling hospitality businesses. If your region is in Tier 1, the lowest level, then you may open your pub and restaurant with table service only. The curfew limit has changed. You can serve alcohol, as previously, up until 10pm but customers are now allowed to stay until 11pm,
The government believes this will stagger people leaving and relieve pressure on public services. Really? In my experience your customers will now order several rounds of drinks just before 10pm and sit drinking until they are asked to leave. If you are a struggling publican who has been forced to close for several weeks this year, you will not turn down the opportunity to sell a few extra drinks.
In Tier 2, you can only serve alcohol with a “substantial meal”. The “substantial meal” has for years been a point of contention within licensing law. Briefly, it is not a plate of chips and should be something requiring a knife and fork – don’t get me started! In England there are numerous pubs that do not serve food, so they are now forced to close again!
Remember that only table service is permitted when open, and those tables have to be one metre apart and you are not allowed more than a group of 6 people. So what is the issue with serving alcohol without a meal? Is this virus so intelligent that in areas where there are a higher number of cases it will target drinkers who have not had dinner? Or is this another example of the government trying to outlaw alcohol?
If you are unlucky enough to live in a region classed as being in Tier 3, well, basically, you are doomed to stay at home! Pubs, restaurants and all non-essential businesses are to remain closed. But you may offer a take away service.
The hospitality industry has suffered unimaginable loss during the Covid pandemic but has also put some very strict protocols in place. An industry which employs 2 million people. Table service in a bar is common in many countries but in England the traditional pub is a place where people stand at a bar counter or go to a bar counter to get their own drinks.
By adding distanced tables and only allowing ordering and consumption whilst seated the pub is a safer environment than most busses. Add to this that many pubs have installed perspex screens to separate areas and staff are wearing face masks, the risk of Covid infection is as limited as possible. I understand that it requires everyone to follow the protocols.
The English government has imposed random rules on the industry without any proper thought to the consequences. They have constantly reacted too late without any proactive thought of how to manage a complicated situation. I doubt whether any of those government ministers has ever spent any time working within the hospitality industry. There appears to be some hope on the horizon with regards to a vaccine but I fear that it may be too late for many of England’s great hospitality venues which have, quite literally, been left out in the cold.