Crisis time for pubs again?

Pubs industry puts out very gloomy message after rash of cancellations

It’s sometimes tough being a journalist, especially when the messenger is blamed for bringing bad news. There was bad news a-plenty in the run-up to Christmas as advice from the scientists to avoid social gatherings led to a lot of cancellations for parties booked into pubs, while the Government hoped for the best from the vaccination campaign as it tried to avoid the harsher measures introduced by some countries, such as Holland, Wales and Ireland. On the Tuesday before Christmas, the Chancellor finally blinked announcing grants of up to £6,000 per pub — a welcome move, but nowhere near enough to cover some of their losses.

When asked to comment on behalf of CAMRA by the Oxford Mail, I took the middle way and said things were serious, but that it was not all doom and gloom. This was based on my own experience of visiting town and village pubs and the experience of others who spend more time in pubs than I do (thanks Gareth, Tony and others!) Putting out a doom and gloom message can bring only more doom and gloom, but underestimating the threat to pubs can be dangerous too.

Dining room at the Community-Owned Seven Stars, run by Free Spirit

There is no doubt that advice to avoid socialising has come as a bitter blow for pubs at what should be the busiest time of the year, and the Oxford Mail quoted the White Hart at Wytham (450 cancellations in 10 days, a loss of £17,500) and Free Spirit Pub Company, which runs four pubs including the Seven Stars in Marsh Baldon and the Castle at Edgehill, near Banbury, which had lost £50,000 in Christmas revenue. Significantly, all these pubs are in the country with the emphasis on dining. The picture locally is more mixed, as some pubs went into the pre-Christmas season after a strong trading performance in recent weeks with the Chequers in Oxford, for example, having its busiest day ever in early December.

Pubs more reliant on drinks than food were generally doing better, but the advice from Oxford University to cancel all social events, sent out on December 9, was a blow to many city pubs. But many especially younger people were still going out as there was a fear that pubs might be closing soon and they wanted to socialise while they could. Ian Stuart, landlord of the Harcourt Arms in Jericho, told me that business really dropped off after about December 15 as people realised that with a positive Covid test result after then, they would have to isolate for 10 days and miss Christmas get-togethers. But he expected to end 2021 ahead of 2019, a great result made possible by opening up the pub garden and having no service of food.

Greene King said bookings were 70-80% down

The advice to avoid socialising put pubs back in the position they were in before they had to close in March 2020 – being allowed to stay open, but with many people staying away. “Closure by stealth” was how many commentators described it, with Greene King telling the BBC that bookings were down 70-80% on December 2019 levels in some parts of the country, saying there was lockdown “in all but name”. Fuller’s also caused shockwaves by announcing it was closing some of its busiest city pubs indefinitely, with central London pubs being hit hard by government advice to work from home as well as the scientists warning against socialising.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said that 37 million fewer pints would be sold this Christmas than normal, underlining how breweries are hit hard as well as pubs, with total losses estimated at nearly £300 million, with three million cancellations recorded in the week after the advice changed. The British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) conducted a survey of 500 mostly independent pub members revealing trade was significantly down for 78% of them, with one in four planning redundancies and others reducing staff hours.

CAMRA has joined these associations in pleading for a package of ongoing financial help to include continuing business rates and VAT relief and cash grants, but national chairman Nik Antona welcomed grants of up to £6,000 per pub announced on Tuesday as “an important first step”.

“It is an important recognition from ministers that the actions of government have massively hit consumer confidence, footfall and the ability for businesses to turn a profit at what should be their busiest time of the year,” he said. “Sadly for some pubs that have already closed their doors due to cancellations and a huge drop in trade, this support will be too late. Whilst the grants announced today may help businesses through the next few weeks, it will not make up for losing out on the Christmas trade which is vital for keeping pubs and breweries going during the quiet months at the start of the year. Businesses still desperately need certainty on what might happen next. If further restrictions are going to be imposed there needs to be enough time for pubs and breweries to plan and prepare. The sector will also need a comprehensive support package over and above what has been announced today, including further employment support through furlough, rent support and business rate relief to support and safeguard our locals.” 

Welcome as the grants are, they won’t persuade a spooked public to go back to the pub if they have already stopped going. But if you are comfortable with going out, your local pub will welcome you warmly – it isn’t a ghost town out there as some people might think. Am I being reckless? I don’t think so, as it’s up to every one of us to decide what level of risk to accept, but the longer we take deciding, the more pubs will suffer.

Hoping to re-open in February — Oxford CAMRA with landlord-to-be Steve Jones (third from left)

Despite the doom and gloom spread by the pubs industry since the start of the pandemic, very few pubs in and around Oxford have closed permanently, while people have come forward to take on vacant pubs. Those few pubs that do remain closed, such as the Eagle and Child and the Mitre, might well be closed anyway, while the Lamb & Flag expects to re-open in a few weeks.

We must remember, however, that despite the usually cheery welcome from behind the bar, many people who run their own businesses are suffering badly having spent their savings trying to keep afloat while often falling deep in debt. My New Year toast is to these unsung heroes, while hoping they show as much resilience now as in the past, dreadful, 21 months.

If you’d like to comment on this or any other Oxford Drinker post, email or comment on the Oxford CAMRA Facebook page.