The multi-billion pound pub industry is taking its first steps back to trying to recover from the Covid-19 crisis after being allowed to re-open to customers from the start of the week.
However, pubs, bars and restaurants are only permitted to serve food and drink from outdoor areas, meaning trade is hugely dependent on the weather and whether consumer confidence has not already been undermined by repeated lockdowns.
The chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), Tom Stainer, has told The Yorkshire Post that the ongoing restrictions have left the industry disadvantaged while other sectors of the economy are not coping with similar draconian measures.
Mr Stainer said: “Every time we have come out of a lockdown, the hospitality industry has been singled out with different restrictions. People are now able to go into non-essential shops, but they can’t go and sit in a pub - which in many ways is a safer environment with a close check on social distancing and tables and seating being cleaned after each customer.
“We have often not had clear guidance from the Government, such as whether people are allowed to pay inside or whether drinks can be served through hatches, which has compounded the problems.”
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The Government’s roadmap out of the current lockdown means that the hospitality sector will have to wait until May 17 when the next easing of restrictions is due to allow customers to drink and dine inside licensed premises.
Only about a third of pubs were expected to reopen on Monday, with many without outdoor spaces to allow staff to welcome back customers.
Mr Stainer added: “The past year has left pubs facing their biggest ever challenge, as not even during the two World Wars were they told to close their doors. This has been unprecedented, and there were already issues with changing consumer habits with people stocking up at supermarkets to drink at home.
“Covid-19 has compounded that as people have now got used to ordering online to enjoy a pint at home. The hospitality industry does seem to be becoming demonised, as the restrictions which are in place suggest that it is not safe for customers to be inside a pub.
“But the pub trade has made huge efforts to be Covid-secure, and the situation right now is undermining customers’ confidence.”
Representatives of the UK’s pub industry wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month to highlight the Government’s “stealthy backsliding” on pub reopening rules.
Trade bodies UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association and the British Institute of Innkeeping claimed that the threat of more impositions on pub businesses would mean many businesses would not survive.
The organisations warned that the possibility of vaccine passports, test and trace rules and an inability not able to take payments indoors after reopening would prove to be too much of a burden for many publicans.
Mr Stainer urged the Government to consider introducing a cut in duty on draft beer to help reinvigorate the sector.
He said: “This would help encourage more customers back to pubs with a cheaper pint of offer, generating more revenue for both the Government and the businesses themselves. Running a pub is certainly not a financial goldmine, so any measures to help support the trade would be extremely well received.”
The Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, Kevin Hollinrake, has been a vocal supporter of the pub industry, which had a total estimated market value of more than £23bn in 2019 before coronavirus struck.
However, Mr Hollinrake stressed the current financial support which is being offered by the Government to prop up the economy cannot continue indefinitely.
He said: “A lot of businesses are under a huge amount of pressure especially in the hospitality and tourism sectors, but I honestly cannot see any more financial measures being offered beyond the current timescales.
“The Chancellor set out his plan for the economic recovery in the Budget, and while things will obviously be reviewed if the situation changes dramatically, the Government has provided a package of support that is extremely generous to help support the economy throughout the pandemic.
“What we need to see is an economy that can stand on its own two feet without the Government having to intervene, and while things have been extremely tough, I am optimistic for the future. People do need to realise that they have to go and support their local pubs and restaurants, though, and now is the chance to do just that.”