Pubs have urged the government to clarify “half-baked” plans to reopen beer gardens, amid confusion over whether some will be permitted to serve drinks before the end of the month.
A group of cabinet ministers nicknamed the “Save Summer Six” are reportedly considering proposals to allow beer gardens in England to host drinkers from as early as 22 June as part of an effort to avert 3.5m job losses in the struggling hospitality sector.
But publicans, brewers and the pub industry trade body said many would struggle to be ready in under three weeks and called for certainty about the government’s timetable.
“We’ve always wanted to reopen our nation’s pubs safely and viably as soon as possible, but we urgently need a clear decision on whether we can reopen pub beer gardens early,” said Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA).
The trade body, which represents the UK’s largest pub-owning companies, has previously warned that 40% of the UK’s 47,000 pubs could shut for good due to lockdown restrictions.
It wants the government to allow all pubs to open from 4 July, the date the government initially put forward as the earliest possible opportunity, and it has also said the 27,000 UK pubs with outdoor space should be the first to be allowed to open their doors.
But it said a sudden acceleration of the plans would leave many pubs unable to restock draught beer and put safety measures in place quickly enough, with at least three weeks required.
Proposals to allow beer gardens to open from 22 June were first reported on Sunday night in the Financial Times, which cited three Whitehall officials. The government has since refused to confirm whether the earlier date is under consideration.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said only that officials were “working at pace to develop safe ways for pubs, restaurants, bars and cafes to reopen at the earliest opportunity it is safe to do so.”
Ministers are expected to discuss proposals at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, potentially including a reduction in physical distancing requirements to 1 metre from 2 metres.
Greg Mulholland, a former MP who chairs the British Pubs Confederation, said the government’s plans appeared “half-baked”, warning that the lack of clarity could make it impossible for pubs to be ready at short notice.
He also voiced fears that pub companies might use the 22 June date as an excuse to charge struggling tenants rent, even if distancing rules made it impossible for them to open.
JD Wetherspoon’s founder, Tim Martin, said opening some pubs would at least offer some confidence that the industry is returning to business as usual.
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“Few pubs will be able to make a profit using outdoor space only but partial reopening will provide a psychological boost to a beleaguered industry,” said Martin. “It will signal the intent of the government to make progress towards normality, which will be welcome.”
Almost 700 of Wetherspoons’ 867 pubs have a beer garden, roof terrace or patio, and the company has previously set out plans for a pandemic-era pub involving bar staff wearing goggles and protective screens between tables.
Mark Daniels, the landlord of the Brewers Arms in Worcester, said he would be keen to open his beer garden, but doing so inside a fortnight would be difficult.
He said: “If things were right I’d jump at it. We’ve lost a lot of business already in what has been great weather with two bank holidays. But there are more issues to look at. If you can’t operate fully would there be rent supplements involved? Also, brewers will need to know as soon as possible to be able to supply the demand.”
Some small craft brewers fear that a short-notice timetable would put them at a disadvantage to global brewing corporations.
Sam McMeekin, a co-founder of the Gipsy Hill brewery in south-east London, said: “It is unbelievably complex to get fresh beer going again. It takes us about 25 days to get kegged beer ready and it takes a big brewer about four.
“If they’ve got 15 days’ notice they can have fresh beer ready and available. They’ve also got the benefit of power over their suppliers, which helps them get the ingredients, even if it’s on credit. For us, people will be demanding payments for our next barley delivery.”
McMeekin said small brewers would also be much harder hit if the pubs they sell to go out of business without paying their bills.