English pubs call last orders at the bar for a month on Wednesday evening, as the country effectively shuts down for the second time this year to try to cut coronavirus cases.
Pub owners and industry organizations are angry and concerned at the move, warning that after struggling with the first lockdown, it could cause many pubs to call “time” for good.
“Make no mistake, this could be the final straw for thousands of pubs and brewers,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association.
The organization, which represents about 20,000 venues across Britain and whose members brew 90% of the country’s beer, said it would have a knock-on effect.
“It will also create a major disruption to our supply chain partners whose businesses are now also at severe risk,” said McClarkin.
Restaurants, gyms and non-essential shops and services will also close for four weeks from Thursday until December 2, with hopes business could resume in time for Christmas.
But pubs, which have played a central part in British cultural and social life for centuries, have become emblematic of the disruption caused by the outbreak.
When he announced the first lockdown in March, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said taking “the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub” was “wrenching.”
The pubs reopened in July but social distancing measures, including 10pm early closing and a bar on people from different households mixing indoors, have dented takings.
Trade body UKHospitality has warned that clubs, pubs and bars will face the cumulative effects of the first lockdown and more recent restrictions when they have to shut again.
“If hospitality, the sector that is our country’s third-largest employer, is to survive and help drive economic recovery, it will need equivalent – or more – support than that of the first lockdown,” said chief executive Kate Nicholls.
Hanging by a thread
The West Berkshire Brewery runs five pubs and produces five million pints of beer every year.
Managing director Tom Lucas said the first lockdown had been “catastrophic” for his company: 85% of the business disappeared overnight.
“It never recovered, that’s the trouble,” he said. “Even though we reopened our pubs, the pubs that we own were tracking 50% to 30% down on the prior year.”
The brewery has compensated for the fall in revenue by pivoting to bottling and canning for other breweries.
But Lucas admitted others have not adapted so easily. “It’s put a huge amount of strain on the brewing industry,” he said.
Joe Curran, the landlord of The Queen’s Head pub in the Soho area of central London, said it was not clear what kind of business he would have by December.
“We will be paying this off for years,” he said. “This lockdown will cost us thousands on top of the thousands so far,” he added.
“If you just hang on by a thread, you’ve got to think about what sort of operation that is.”
Down the drain
For Curran and others like him, the lockdown could not have come at a worse time, with the run-up to Christmas traditionally the busiest time of the year.
“We may reopen but we’re not going to reopen in any recognizable sense of what December usually looks like in the hospitality business,” he said.
“That’s really our month where we make the business pay.”
Sam Gregory, the landlord of the Bank Tavern in Bristol, western England, said pub owners had been forced to pay the price for what he said was the government’s lack of foresight.
“It’s policy on the hoof,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. And then they dump the news on us at the last minute.”
According to TradeWaste, which provides commercial waste collections and recycling services, some 7.5 million pints of beer will go down the drain because of the latest lockdown.
That is on top of the 70 million pints that were wasted during the previous three-month closure.
But some are trying to offset the losses.
UK pub chain Wetherspoons is serving real ale on tap for just 99 pence ($1.29) per pint at 750 bars and pubs across England. That’s less than a third of the average price across England, while in London a pint of beer will cost you more than five pounds.
“The reality is that any real ales not sold between now and lockdown will have to be thrown away, so it is better that customers can enjoy it at a great price while the pubs remain open,” Wetherspoons’ spokesman Eddie Gershon said.