After “Freedom Day”, what now for our local pubs?

Mixed picture as staff shortages and self-isolating staff cause headaches

The abolition of all legal restrictions from Monday, July 19 should have marked effectively the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, but of course it didn’t. In the pubs industry the celebrations have been muted even although they can now trade normally for the first time since March 2020. The true impact of 16 months of total closure or ever-changing restrictions may yet to be felt, with costs mounting and a deepening crisis over shortage of staff.

Covid infections are running at a high rate in Oxfordshire and especially in Oxford itself, and the dreaded “ping” from the NHS Covid-19 app has forced many staff to isolate after coming into close contact with an infected person. The pubs industry reckons that one in five staff are self-isolating, and local pubs that were forced to close temporarily because of this included the White Rabbit and Royal Blenheim in Oxford. No compensation is available when this happens.

This has heaped misery on pubs at a time when staff shortages are escalating as a result of people finding other jobs during lockdown, and European staff returning to their home countries because of Covid and Brexit. The shortage is so dire that it has forced the licensee of one real ale pub, the Swan Inn at Faringdon, to announce that he and wife Liz will be leaving on August 8.

Andrew Brotherston wrote on Facebook: “Due to the national shortage of staff affecting hospitality and other industries, I have had no suitable applications to my many recruitment ads and it does not look like the situation will change any time soon. I have worked on my own every day since we reopened in addition to all the behind the scenes work and I cannot continue any longer – physically or mentally. As there is no telling how long the staffing issue will continue, I need a more regular, permanent solution and right now I have to put my physical and mental health first.

The Swan Inn, Faringdon, which also has a micro-brewery

“To have come through the last incredibly difficult 18 months still standing and to be defeated in this way is particularly gutting. We are so proud of what we have achieved in our four and a half years in this pub and in this community.”

He went on to thank breweries White Horse, Little Ox, Loose Cannon, Hop Kettle and Ramsbury, and also Cotswold Cider Company, for their support, and urges people to support other local pubs in Faringdon. But all is not lost at the Swan, which is currently Faringdon’s only Good Beer Guide pub, and is part of the small Oak Taverns group which has a strong focus on real ale. A new team is expected to take over fairly soon at the pub, which also has a small brewhouse, Faringdon Brewery, on the premises.

It’s very sad to see people giving up their livelihoods in this way, and there are probably many more like Andy suffering out of sight of their customers. More closures could be coming, with the people running Hubble and Home on Oxford’s Abingdon Road also giving up after less than a year in charge. The pub, previously the Berkshire, Crooked Pot and Home, is available to let from Hawthorn Leisure. It is one of about 20 pubs in the county that are on the market, along with the Fox Inn at Boars Hill, run by the same couple as Hubble and Home, which remains open and is hosting an all-day music event on Saturday (July 24). Another real ale pub that is currently closed, the Shoulder of Mutton in Wantage, looks very neglected. Closed since December 2020, its distinctive pub sign has been painted out. On the plus side, the Oxford Blue in Marston Street has at last re-opened for the first time since March 2020, one of an estimated 2,000 pubs that could not open under the restrictions now swept away.

The outlook for pubs is outlined in a new survey by the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), which revealed that 55% of respondents have accrued pandemic specific debts of over £20,000 per site, with more than one in four having debts of up to £80,000. Only 42% of respondents are confident of returning to profit as restrictions are lifted, as increased costs and debt repayments impact their businesses.  At the same time 72% are now facing full rent payments since July 19. Staffing remains a huge challenge for pubs with nearly one in two struggling to recruit the staff they need.  Additionally 72% of operators are having to raise wages for front of house staff.

Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “The recovery of our sector is just beginning with the last 18 months practically being written off. Having been one of the worst hit sectors by lockdown, our pubs and brewers now need the Government to invest in them by reforming VAT, beer duty and business rates to reduce the unfair tax burden they face and aid their recovery. We urge people who want to help their local and see it thrive to support the Long Live the Local campaign and sign the petition at”

The Royal Blenheim had to close for a few days due to staff self-isolating

CAMRA Chief Executive Tom Stainer added: “CAMRA will continue to campaign for the Government to support pubs, including by changing the rate of duty charged on draught beer served in pubs to help them compete with supermarkets. Pubs are also in need of clarity from the Government as restrictions lift, namely on what is expected of businesses in continued contact tracing and checking Covid status.”

Unfortunately, clarity has been totally lacking. Within hours of nightclubs re-opening, the Government announced that by the end of September, people visiting “venues where large crowds gather” would have to show proof they were double vaccinated – so-called “Covid Passports”. It has refused to rule out extending this to pubs.