Time to celebrate – but be wary of outlook for pubs

Is there a “ghost at the feast” as pubs re-open for indoor trading?

No-one wants to spoil the party as we knock back our first indoor pints this year from Monday, but it’s worth remembering that 14 months of total closure or restrictions have left scars on pubs and breweries that can only be erased by a long period of stability and calm. This is a time for all of us who love pubs to grin and bear the restrictions we still face, which hopefully will be lifted from June 21 if a surge in new variants of Covid doesn’t plunge us into more chaos.

So, what are the restrictions? Basically, the same rules that have applied to pubs opening outside from April 12 continue now that they can open indoors:

  • Pubs must operate table service only and not allow you to order at the bar, and you must wear a face covering except when seated.
  • Groups of up to six from different households can meet indoors as well as outdoors, and everyone (not just one per party) must fill in Test and Trace details either on the NHS app or some other means (usually on paper, or by the pub entering your details on a computer or other device).
  • “One metre plus” social distancing will continue, meaning pubs should space out tables and not allow groups to mix.
  • One change to outdoor trading is that groups of up to 30 can now meet.
  • Live entertainment is permitted inside or outside, but at only 50% of normal capacity. Audience members should be encouraged not to sing along or start dancing.
The Star in East Oxford — a pub that did well with its large garden, that can now open inside too

Many of us may regard some or all of this as a pain and a reason not to support pubs, but pubs desperately need our custom. The pub experience will still be different at least for the next few weeks, but the willingness of pubs and their customers to adapt and get on with it has been proved time after time as the last few weeks have shown. Many were sceptical that pubs could justify re-opening for outdoor sales only, but pubs have been very creative with marquees, dining pods, wooden shelters or simply large umbrellas, and people – not just youngsters – have been flocking in (or rather out).

Good weather during the first three weeks after re-opening outdoors was certainly a great help, encouraging some pubs that stayed closed at first to open up their beer gardens or patios. Our members (thanks above all to Tony Goulding) have visited nearly all the 200 pubs in our branch area and we reckon two-thirds have re-opened, far more than the 40% national average predicted by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). The BBPA predicts that while 45,000 pubs will be open from Monday, 2,000 pubs around the country will remain closed.

In Oxford these will include the much-missed Lamb and Flag in St Giles, with still no news on what owner St John’s College intends to do with it; the historic Mitre, on the High Street, leased by Marston’s but looking increasingly forlorn; and the Wheatsheaf, off the High Street, whose owner has withdrawn an application to convert the upper floor (a leading live music venue) into student accommodation. The Eagle and Child will remain closed while it undergoes a long-term redevelopment as a small hotel, to be operated by Young’s, while other pubs may decide to wait until June 21 when all restrictions are due to end. The pubs industry warns that there will be no return to profitability until all restrictions are dropped, despite all the Covid-related financial support they have received.

Unloved….. the closed Mitre on Oxford High Street

Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the BBPA, said: “Our pubs have been preparing for this Monday over the last couple of months. We expect 45,000 pubs to open across the UK and three million pints to be served on Monday alone. However, that is 1.6 million pints less than what they would have sold on a typical Monday before the pandemic. This is because 2,000 pubs will still remain closed and pubs that do open are limited in their sales by table service and no standing drinking.

“This is by no means the end of the crisis for our sector. We need pubs fully re-opened without any restrictions at all on June 21 if they are to survive and trade viably. The countdown to freedom, and recovery, is on.”

Breweries too warn that the crisis is not over, although many independent producers have successfully introduced deliveries and re-opened their taprooms – with some, such as Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover), opening a taproom for the first time. SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) conducted a recent survey indicating that 73% of taprooms were busier than during the same period in 2019, despite being open outside only.

But Chief Executive James Calder said: “It has been wonderful to see so many brewery ‘tap yards’ busy over recent weeks, but a few weeks of healthy trade do not make up for what has been lost. Independent breweries in the UK have racked up on average around £30,000 of debt during lockdown and have been left out of the Government’s support for the hospitality industry. In Scotland a brewers’ support fund helped out struggling small brewers, but in the rest of the UK breweries have not been so lucky.”

We all know what we can do to help – get down to the pub, and enjoy a locally produced beer from an independent brewery!