By Kieran Neild-Ali, grassroots assistant.
Lockdown has two sides: the very personal tale of socially distanced interaction with family and friends, and the sobering effect these measures have had on our jobs and the wider economy. But in some cases, the personal and the economic impacts of the government's measures are felt simultaneously. This is most clearly seen in pubs across the UK where both landlords and punters are being battered with lockdown measures.
It started with the blanket closure of pubs in March which lasted for four months. Reluctantly but diligently we obeyed the rules. When the pubs finally reopened on the 4th July, the nation cheered hoping the draconian measures were a thing of the past. ‘Eat out to help out’ was announced and the hospitality industry was given a lifeline.
However, rapidly rising case numbers forced the state to intervene again - ‘Keep out to help out’ is the new mantra. On Monday the PM announced the three-tier lockdown system to the dismay of millions. Pubs and hospitality venues in England will continue to shut at 10pm and offer socially distanced table service. The rule of 6 still applies to the entire country. But for those areas in the very high risk category, like Liverpool, all pubs and bars that don’t serve food will be closed down completely for four weeks - sending many businesses back to square one.
Curfew chaos and social distancing measures have already silenced the heartfelt sound of clinking pint glasses, the clatter of snooker cues and the rowdy ramblings of regular punters. As the pumps pull their last pint and doors close at 10pm, thousands of pubs are under threat of remaining silent forever. Big pub chains are already showing signs of struggling. Greene King are set to close 79 pubs in response to the curfew. It doesn't bode well for smaller independent pubs either.
According to ONS figures, almost half a million people work in pubs across the UK. The coronavirus measures are impacting many sectors, while Rishi Sunak’s economic plan is failing to save the country from job losses and business closures, with recent figures showing the highest unemployment level in three years. It amounts to a cocktail of disaster for pubs across the country, as I recently found out in my home town in east Lancashire.
John Mainland has been the landlord of the Cross Axes, my local in Great Harwood, for over fifteen years. The coronavirus restrictions have left his pub, and many others in the town, on the rocks. Talking about the Covid restrictions, John simply said the government measures are “murdering pubs left, right and centre”. The majority of his punters rolled in to enjoy late night karaoke and live entertainment. Now, drinkers are swiftly seen out the door for 10 o’clock and his main attractions have been outlawed. Not only has John lost his busiest hours, he has been forced to take on more staff to offer table service to his customers - adding another financial burden to a struggling business.
Even though the government gave publicans grants, John was right to remind me that the brewery still wanted their share of the money. Inevitably, the grants have withered away and landlords now fear that if pubs are kept dangling by a shoestring, forced to overcome more lockdown measures without any help, they will struggle to keep open.
Takings are down and so are the regulars. The Cross Axes once had a capacity of 200, but now it is limited at 62. Not only has this frustrated the pub’s finances, the social impact of these measures have also been felt strongly. John had a great amount of regulars who would come for bingo and live entertainment. Many of them were elderly and relied on the social interaction of a bustling pub. Now, they cannot mix with other households indoors. Regulars are scared to come in, though others have vowed to return when the restrictions are lifted. It is desperately sad not to see many of the older people in the pub. For many, this was their only outing and a chance to socialise with old friends.
As the TaxPayers’ Alliance said when the virus broke out, many of the measures were understandable and justifiable. But whatever one thinks of the measures themselves, the personal economic impact of them cannot be ignored. It might be necessary, but struggling pubs are on the front line.
How can we help pubs survive? The answer is simple - cut taxes and red tape. Asked whether cuts to beer duty and permanent VAT cuts would help keep his business afloat, John’s response was a resounding yes: “Absolutely. Any cuts anywhere that would help us boost our profits so we can actually move forward with the business and not keep plodding on day to day”.
But the problems facing pubs aren't just the result of current restrictions - they've been building up through decades of systematic neglect for the sector. Reminiscing, John explained, “Thirty years ago owning a pub was a good livelihood, now it is simply a way of life”. Britain's landlords have been taken for granted and as a result struggle to make a living. Tax increases, proposed minimum unit prices and now lockdown measures are making “trading impossible” and ultimately “killing pubs''.
That's why it’s time for an alternative strategy to boost the economy and save our pubs. Since pubs need more staff to deliver the legally required table service, why not abolish employer and employee national insurance contributions? It would reduce the burden on John and thousands of other employers, increase their staff’s take home pay and allow pubs to fight another day.
In addition, the government should seriously consider removing business rates until pubs have time to recover from the restrictions. The government rightly gave pubs business rate relief, but the scheme is set to end in March 2021 leaving landlords with an average bill of £25,000 per rate paying pub. It's unfair to force pubs to pay over-inflated rates when the restrictions have completely turned their businesses upside down. As well as extending the relief, business rates should also be changed permanently to tackle inaccurate rateable values. Now is exactly the time for simple measures to allow businesses to appeal their rate valuations, as we argued in our recent Rate Expectations campaign.
It’s not just tax. Cutting red tape could help too. The government should accept our calls to amend the Licensing Act 2003 to permanently allow all licensed venues to sell alcohol and food for takeaway consumption, as well change regulations to open up nearby parking spaces for restaurants and bars to use for outdoor chairs and tables (a missed opportunity this summer).
These reforms alone will see a welcome increase in capacity and financial savings; boosting local employment and allowing people to enjoy a drink with friends.
Landlords understandably have great trepidation's about the new tier system. Although we all agree we must reduce the spread of the virus, the human and economic impact is stark. Politicians are now starting to raise the idea that the cure may become worse than the disease. For the sake of the Cross Axes and thousands of other pubs up and down the country, we need a low tax, no red tape alternative to keep the local open. Pubs are part of our national identity - and as John will tell you - we cannot let the ‘new normal’ call time at the bar forever.