The choice for pubs: rush to open for ‘Independence Day’ or risk going under

Dr Liz Hind

‘Independence Day’ is coming, we’ve been told, but pub owners know that they still have a fight to save the industry. The way that this has been dealt with by the government is a complete mess. We have been promised the guidelines for weeks – we told the government that we needed three weeks to get everything in place to open properly. The guidelines came out at 7am on June 24th, giving us just 11 days to put the measures in place.

The mantra of being “guided by the science” has been dropped, and we are now supposed to make a ‘one-metre-plus’ set of guidelines work. These guidelines are of course vague, with measures that we could consider putting in place – leaving all the pressure on business owners to interpret and implement. Hospitality is a highly regulated industry. There are existing powers to close us down. How this will work in practice under social distancing is unclear.

Why are we not all refusing to open when there are still so many questions? The simple truth is that we have little choice. It is clear that the government will not give more financial support: most of the support they have given is in the form of loans and furlough is coming to an end. Many pub owners will still have to pay rent, or pay a large penalty for ending a contract early that we simply can’t afford. We need urgent help to negotiate with rents and other costs. We can’t rely on the good will of pub owners and brewers to help us out – we are already under pressure with the added dimension that we need to place orders for beer with these businesses if we want to reopen.

I’m lucky. I had the cash in the business to carry on through lockdown. We were planning on doing some work in the summer to the garden, so we had money in our account from profits we made at Christmas. Other pub owners will not have been so lucky. There was no way to factor the virus and the length of closure that we have faced into any cash flow forecast. We could not have foreseen that the government would completely ignore advice on setting up track and trace, so had no way to predict that customer confidence would be this low when we reopen. Pub owners who have had to go into debt will need monitoring so that they receive appropriate support and advice if it becomes apparent that they are not viable under social distancing measures.

We also need to be able to understand our liabilities under licensing laws and whether we can expect support. Every premises has what is known as a “designated premises supervisor”. They are responsible for ensuring the safe sales of alcohol. As a DPS, I will have to consider very carefully whether I feel that I can operate safely under the guidelines that have just been published and within the broader social conditions.

The government has decided that it wants to reopen every pub on an ‘Independence Day’. From my initial risk assessment, I will not be opening on the July 4th: there are too many unknown risks that I can’t introduce measures to mitigate because there may be more customers than the new working practices will allow for. I know that there will be no extra support if there are problems, and that is more risk than I am willing to take on. We will open on the Sunday instead, once we have had time to reflect on expected levels of trade. I have contacted my union, Unite. I hope that we can work together to ensure a safe return to work. I welcome their involvement in a spirit of cooperation at a time of acute stress for the industry.

Reopening pubs is not a story about people versus profit. I am not a ‘business’, I am not a ‘sector’, I am not an ‘economic trend’. The use of this abstract language to talk about the situation is insulting. I am a person who is worried about my livelihood, my pension savings and the fate of something that took me years to build up. I am worried about my staff, for whom I feel responsible. The last three months have cost me thousands of pounds and I can’t carry on much longer with that level of loss.

I had already been undergoing therapy for stress and anxiety. The published guidelines have clauses for supporting the mental welfare of staff; pub owners will also need that support. We know that there are many months of uncertainty to come, and we are a long way from knowing that our business will survive. We asked for three weeks to prepare for a reason, rushing us into opening on a Saturday when there are so many questions to answer is not reasonable. I hope that the Labour Party will continue to challenge the way the government is handling the lifting of lockdown.

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