Mo Metcalf-Fisher is spokesman for the Countryside Alliance.
During lockdown, the closure of pubs was catastrophic for the countryside. Pubs form part of the backbone of rural communities up and down the land. They are not just places to see off a pint; they are public houses that provide a vital community space. They act as village hubs, often being one of the few places available for local people to meet, hold events and even operate as polling stations during elections.
When the go-ahead was given by the Government to reopen pubs from July 4, the nation collectively cheered. Meeting up with friends at my local on the first evening it reopened gave me immense joy. Seeing other families and friends enjoying themselves, laughing and exchanging stories all while putting money into the till of a local business was incredibly satisfying to see again. Despite this positive development, it seems pubs now face a further challenge to their long-term existence.
Throughout the Covid crisis, the Countryside Alliance has been keeping in regular contact with publicans across our extensive network of rural businesses. While most were incredibly grateful for the financial support and flexibility of the Government during the height of lockdown, many were incredibly eager to get going again, once restrictions were lifted.
Landlords and pub owners seldom have an easy day; working long hours and continuously coming up with innovative ways to drive up new business. Irrespective of vast complications caused by Covid, there are a multitude of pre-existing factors which make keeping pubs open a challenge. Supermarkets selling multi-buy offers which are not available to pubs, for example, make it much harder for pubs to compete. It’s no secret that the number of pubs has been decreasing steadily for several decades. According to the BBPA, from 2000 to 2018, pub numbers have declined by 22 per cent.
Then there has been an effort, by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, to push an unhelpful narrative that pubs should be the first establishments to close in order to prioritise keeping schools open. Her exact quote, was: “If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”
Now, no one is seriously doubting the importance of children going back to school, as quickly as possible. Seeing certain teachers unions’ attempting to sabotage plans to reopen schools and playing politics with our children’s future has infuriated me to my core. However, why is the not-so subtle dig over the prioritisation of reopening being landed at the door of our hardworking publicans?
The issue I take with her remark is that she has provided little clarity as to why there needs to be an exclusive choice between the two. The reason the closure of pubs captivated so many in the nation is because of their importance both as an economic contributor; providing huge levels of employment as well trade for an array of other connected businesses like breweries and wholesalers, as well as their huge societal contribution, at heart of so many local communities.
Pubs have already invested large sums into bringing their establishments up to the strict standards of health and safety expected of them. Plastic protective screens have been set up, PPE bought, hand sanitiser stations made available and track & trace systems implemented.
It is clear publicans understand their duty to their collective communities to provide a safe and secure social space. Many of the pubs we speak to have reported that as time has gone on, footfall has gradually increased. Staff have been taken off furlough and new personnel have been hired to meet the demand.
However, that same network of pubs in villages and small towns across Britain are virtually universal in their view that if a second lockdown were introduced, requiring them to shut shop again, they would have to close for good.
The choice facing local authorities should not simply be an either-or scenario. Without pubs, our economy will take an ever greater hit and the long-term damage it will cause across local communities will be irreversible.
We are officially in a recession now and it should go without saying that if we are to even attempt to pick up the pieces when this awful pandemic ends, we need to have a functioning economy. Sniping at pubs from the sidelines and pushing to halt a trade which employs hundreds of thousands of people, will cause untold devastation. Once leaving school, children will need jobs to go to. Unless we are out in our communities earning and spending money, their future remains bleak.
Pubs need and want to continue trading safely, especially as there is no guarantee of further financial support in the event of a further lockdown. Where Covid-related incidents have popped up at pubs, swift action has followed suit.
Take for example the Crown & Anchor in Avely, Essex. Within hours of being notified that a patron had been taken ill with suspected Covid symptoms, the pub immediately notified the community and shut shop. They carried out an extensive deep clean of the premises and remained shut for 72 hours. After following the relevant guidelines, they were able to reopen and continue trading. Going forward, it seems obvious that this remains the most effective way of dealing with Covid cases, from both an economic and health & safety perspective.
Covid has obviously created great anxiety for many people and time will only tell how long it will take for the vast majority of us to go back to leading an ordinary life. But it remains clear that there is not a bottomless pit of money for the government to prop up the economy for the long term. We need sensible, practical solutions for living day to day while the virus remains. We can’t continue living in fear and we must not allow businesses, like those remaining pubs, to fall by the wayside.