Why Boris Johnson’s pubs obsession leaves bitter taste – Jayne Dowle

FORGIVE me for being churlish this Easter Monday, but after more than 12 months of fear, uncertainty and loss, it’s going to take more than the promise of “going to the pub” a week today to cheer me up.

Posters depicting the colours of a rainbow, being used as symbols of hope during the COVID-19 pandemic, and paying tribute to Britain's NHS  workers, are seen in the window of a closed-down pub in  Pontefract.
Posters depicting the colours of a rainbow, being used as symbols of hope during the COVID-19 pandemic, and paying tribute to Britain's NHS workers, are seen in the window of a closed-down pub in Pontefract.

What is this recent obsession with the pub as the panacea for all ills? The Prime Minister is fixated on it.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr Johnson was telling the truth when he admitted he’d already booked his place at the bar on April 12, ahead of securing the services of a decent barber. Or was he saying it in a desperate bid to make a connection with a public he still misunderstands and under-estimates?

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I don’t want my entire experience of the pandemic year reduced to one three-letter word. “There,” said the nurse administering my vaccine. “You’ll soon be able to go to the pub again.” I muttered something about being far more excited about the possible prospect of boarding a plane in the not-too-distant future.

Boris Johnson is accused by columnist Jayne Dowle of being obsessed with pubs.

I wasn’t in the mood for small talk, or assumptions. I actually wanted to say “Do I look like an alcoholic?” but I zipped my lip.

I enjoy a decent pub as much as the next woman, but during a year when our freedoms have been warily granted, only to be snatched away, I can’t relax into it.

It’s very sad. Pubs have been a big part of my life. As a student, I worked behind a number of bars and still say that it was the most fun I had at work, ever. I have friends and family members in the pub trade; several have adapted to take-outs and deliveries.

My pub-crawling days are remembered in a happy haze, but more recently, I did enjoy going out with my family or friends for a nice G&T, something to eat and a peruse of the wine list.

What will be the future of pubs after the lockdown?

However, the experience last summer of visiting various pubs under social distancing measures was taxing. It was a reminder of how much life had really changed, and instead of bringing cheer, made me mourn the freedoms I once took for granted.

I remember the days when all we had to avoid were the peanuts on the bar – I once read some horrifying research about the germs that might lurk – and now we are obliged to carry masks, sanitiser and wipes to protect ourselves from a deadly global pandemic.

Last September, as I sat alone in a riverside beer garden in Stratford-upon-Avon on my wedding anniversary, waiting half an hour for my husband to emerge – only one at the bar allowed – with two pints of cider and a bag of crisps (no food available), I began to wish we’d nipped into M&S for a meal deal instead.

I guess I’m a glass half-full kind of girl. It’s all or nothing with me. I’m either going to go to the pub and enjoy myself without worrying, or not go at all.

I don’t want to stand in a socially distanced queue which snakes out down the street, or sit outside with my mask on and sanitiser in front of me mentally calculating the distance between tables. I don’t want to hand over my name and private telephone number to a test and tracing stranger on the door, and the prospect of eventually having to show a vaccine passport fills me with Big Brother-style dread.

I realise that this is not a helpful attitude, but I’m sure I am not alone. My heart goes out to the thousands of publicans who have either lost their livelihood since last year, or are facing uncertainty as we step gingerly out of lockdown.

The British Beer and Pub Association, a lobby group representing pubs and brewers, estimates that £8.2bn has been lost in beer sales alone in the last year, translating to 2.1 billion pints down the drain.

And it is absolutely no criticism of the hospitality trade in general, which has long been a mainstay of the British visitor economy, but has suffered absolute devastation during the pandemic.

It is, however, a quiet seething resentment towards the Prime Minister, who with his Merrie England bonhomie, seems to think that “pub” is lazy shorthand for “please the people”, inspired perhaps by fictional soap opera boozers.

As those of us in the real world know, there is more than one kind of pub. Some are horrible, sticky-carpeted drug-dealing dens of iniquity that should be shut down permanently, others have Michelin awards for their gourmet food or act as local post office, shop and community centre. And what of the new – and necessary – drive towards good physical and mental health? How does that square with sinking back the pints and chasers?

It’s the clumsy lack of nuance that bothers me. And does he really have such a short memory? Mr Johnson hardly came out fighting for the trade when UK pubs were closing at the rate of six a day between 2018 and 2019, according to official Market Growth Monitor figures from CGA and Alix Partners.

Why, then, is he obsessed with them now?

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