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LONDON — People in England will flock to the pub this week after a dry spell of nearly four months — but many will discover that their hostelry of choice remains shut.
Pub-goers are allowed to drink outdoors in England from Monday, as long as they form groups of no more than six people from two different households. In Scotland and Wales, outdoor hospitality will resume from April 26.
Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his roadmap for lifting the lockdown restrictions, booking outdoor seating at English pubs and restaurants for the first few days after the reopening has become an impossible feat: hospitality businesses say bookings are at record levels.
But the British weather, cashflow problems and the lack of sufficient outdoor space to comply with the government requirements mean most pubs will not open until at least May 17, when indoor hospitality is expected to resume in England.
“We think roughly one third of pubs will open on Monday, and perhaps only a third of those will be profitable,” said James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, which represents 830 independent craft breweries across Britain. “The idea that ‘the pubs are opening, therefore everything is now OK’ couldn’t be further from the truth.”
JD Wetherspoon, which operates about 750 pubs in England, will reopen 396 of them on Monday. Another operator, Mitchells & Butlers, will reopen 270 of its 1,500 outlets in England, with a further 250 earmarked for later in the month. The group owns Browns, Nicholson’s and Harvester pubs, restaurants and bars.
“These plans assume we will have normal April weather — needless to say we have all fingers crossed for a spell of fine weather, in which case we’d look to reopen even more of our businesses,” a spokesperson for Mitchells & Butlers said.
About 2,000 pubs across the U.K. went bust in 2020 due to the coronavirus restrictions, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) — about 5 percent of the total.
Al fresco only
Pubs that can convert pavement space into a drinking area are in a better position than others, but operators fear trade will be highly dependent on the capricious British weather. Businesses are investing tens of thousands of pounds in blankets, parasols, marquees, outdoor heating and furniture.
Pubs without beer gardens will be allowed to trade again from April 12 but will only be able to offer takeaway drinks — an option that has been off the menu from early January.
Calder said cashflow “remains incredibly difficult” and some pubs are still waiting to receive money from the government’s £5 billion Restart Grant Scheme, launched to help them survive the lockdown restrictions.
According to Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the BBPA, pubs reopening this week won’t operate at a profit until they can welcome customers indoors.
“It is a rather chilly spring that we seem to be having so it will be very difficult for our pubs. They won’t be making profits at all … but they want to reconnect with their customers and hopefully be building up to a more successful reopening when they can reopen indoors on May 17,” she said.
Pubs “don’t want to be living off government handouts forever, they want to trade their way out, but the restrictions the government is putting in place hold them back from trading at viable levels, so nobody will be cash positive until June 21 when all the restrictions fade away,” McClarkin added.
The Department for Health and Social Care said the government has supported the hospitality sector throughout the pandemic, through its Restart Grant Scheme, extending the furlough scheme and the VAT cut, and providing 750,000 businesses in hospitality and other sectors with business rates relief.
Lord vs. Hancock
Pub operators are pinning their hopes on a legal battle launched by Sacha Lord, nightclubs operator and night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, who is challenging the government’s decision to open indoor hospitality weeks later than indoor retail.
Lord argues there is no scientific evidence for indoor hospitality businesses to remain shut for weeks longer than indoor shops. He said the industry has invested over half a billion pounds in measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus indoors, and pubs have become safer environments than many other places where people will gather as lockdown eases. On Tuesday, the High Court of England and Wales agreed to expedite his case.
“My argument is let’s open these safe places, which are monitored and regulated, because if we don’t, people are going to start mingling where there are no measures in place and that will be more dangerous than people being monitored,” Lord said.
After winning previous judicial reviews against the government over the 10 p.m. curfew and the requirement to have a substantial meal alongside any alcohol drink, Lord feels optimistic he can win again. He’s got the backing of Pizza Express founder Hugh Osmond and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who agrees it’s harder to maintain distancing in shops than in pubs, and opening hospitality reduces gatherings in homes.
The Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment on legal proceedings, but stressed they have followed scientific advice throughout the pandemic. The department also declined to say whether it would have to postpone the lifting of other restrictions in order to compensate for the impact on the health indicators of bringing forward the reopening of indoor hospitality, in the event the judge upholds Lord’s case.
“We have been clear that we want this lockdown to be the last and to achieve that our approach to cautiously easing restrictions is informed by the best available science and the latest clinical evidence,” a spokesperson said.