Hook Norton brewery boss calls for more government support for pubs to survive Covid-19 pandemic

Hook Norton Brewery Managing Director James Clarke pens piece on impact of the current Covid tier system on the hospitality industry

Hook Norton Brewery Managing Director James Clarke
Hook Norton Brewery Managing Director James Clarke

Hook Norton Brewery Managing Director James Clarke submitted the following piece on the impact of the government's tier system on the hospitality industry.

"No one could have predicted how 2020 would pan out.

"The roaring 20s it certainly has not been. Early in the year we started hearing stories about a virus, but it was the other side of the world, surely it wouldn’t affect us?

"Roll on to March, and the country is locked down. Pubs, most shops, education, construction, travel, all shut down.

"Pubs reopened on 4th July, with strict Covid measures required, and we were very pleased with the way everyone really embraced the new way, what each of us had responsibility for, and pub gardens really came into their own.

"There was no spike in cases when pubs reopened, nor when the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August was running, and there is more than enough regulatory power already in existence should a particular premises not follow the law. And of course, the threat of poor social media reviews if customers do not feel comfortable or safe.

"We always feared a spike in coronavirus cases when schools returned. What we didn’t expect was pubs to be unfairly singled out, when the Government’s own figures show less than 3 per cent of infections are happening in pubs and hospitality.

"An easy target. I see much better social distancing in pubs than supermarkets, but of course the latter are just too powerful. And what on earth was the 10pm curfew?

"Fifteen odd years ago, licensing law changed, to avoid the flash points when pubs and then late-night venues closed at the same times. So the 10pm was never going to work, and it worries me that people in Government can be so disconnected as to think it was a sensible step; but sadly it doesn’t surprise me.

"Now we have to prevent households mixing indoors – except for five days at Christmas.

"In hospitality, we can live with table service, a bar is actually a relatively recent idea, but pubs are a place to socialise, we don’t go out just to drink. We go out to meet people, to socialise, as well of course to drink and maybe eat.

"So to prevent this happening is to completely misunderstand the whole concept of the pub. Not only have pubs lost covers, they have also lost later night drinkers, and the food pubs have lost the second sitting.

"But perhaps most importantly, the legislation recently passed for the tier system was not going to subject to Parliamentary scrutiny again until the end of March.

"So a small group of elected MPs, (but unelected ministers), would be controlling what you can do, where you can go, and who you can see. The study sent to MPs about infection rates in hospitality was based on studies in the US and Asia – hardly reflective of the sector in the UK.

"Before lockdown, we had variations in tier levels on a district or borough level, which made some sense. This time we had much bigger areas, with Warwickshire being placed in tier 3.

"We lobbied our local MPs hard – with mixed success. The MP for Southam spoke against the measures and voted against them; the MP for South Northants spoke against the measures and abstained. Sadly, other local MPs voted for the measures. Interestingly the MP for Stratford issued a statement opposing Warwickshire being placed in tier 3, then voted for the very regulations which implemented this.

"We all accept that the battle against Covid-19 is going to be a long one. We all have our part to play and it is going to be a long hard winter.

"We need clear messaging, proper debate in Parliament of any new measures (yes, MPs, Parliament, not Twitter or Rupert Murdoch’s red top papers) and engagement with industry.

"And we need an exit strategy – what do the numbers need to be to see a reduction in tier levels. In the UK, we police by consent, not by force. But to police by consent, you need to engage, and have clear messaging, with some explanation.

"Covid-19 is the biggest threat to hospitality probably ever, certainly in living memory.

"We acknowledge the Governments’ support thus far. But if pubs are to survive, the sector needs more. We all want to protect jobs. We are all taking pain, but we need proper, balanced support, and we need sensible, rational, science-based decisions.

"And Members of Parliament, now is not the time to follow the party whip. Now is the time to act and fight for the communities you represent; maybe even visit your local pub, and talk to the licensees, but more importantly, listen to them."