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One year since lockdown: a year in the life of UK pubs

Catering Today caught up with Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) to discuss the toughest year in the history of hospitality and breakdown the industry’s highs and lows over the last 12 months

One of the greatest cultural tragedies of the past year in the UK has been the closure of pubs due to the pandemic. According to CGA’s Market Recovery Monitor, nearly 12,000 licensed premises have closed in Britain since December 2019; an average of 30 a day.

To mark the anniversary of the first national lockdown, Catering Today caught up with Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) to discuss what has been the toughest year in the history of modern hospitality and breakdown the industry’s highs and lows over the last 12 months.

Can you explain what the role of the BBPA is and how that role has changed during the pandemic?

We represent over 90% of brewers in the United Kingdom, and over half the pubs, and we’re the real leading voice for the beer and pub sector, in terms of interfacing with parliament and other stakeholders. Our job is to sculpt the environment in which they will conduct their business. 

Of course, that business environment was fundamentally altered by Covid and the announcement of the lockdown. It really went into overdrive in terms of the need to have a voice for the sector, to be championing them, to be making the government aware of the economic impact of all their decisions and restrictions. 

Lockdown came into effect this time last year. How much did the government’s initial support package for pubs and licensed premises assist the sector in staying afloat over the first months of the pandemic?

I do think the Government acted fast in March 2020 to put in place a series of measures that really saved a huge number of publicans from failing. For the most part, those grants were distributed quickly, it was a one-off payment and there was some efficiency in that. They had all the size and scale that was sufficient to prevent mass business failure. 

Admittedly, they were only to deal with an initial two-to-three month lockdown, but they got the first round of support right. But sadly, as we went on through the crisis, and we saw a series of different lockdowns, and even in regional lockdowns, that support changed in its format and it became more complicated in its delivery.

The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme was extremely popular and well-received last summer, however has now come under scrutiny for potentially exacerbating Covid rates across the country. In your opinion, how successful was this policy for pubs and should it be replicated to incentivise getting people to go out and drink once hospitality reopens?

EOTHO was very popular. It gave people the confidence to come back out to hospitality and it was an absolutely vital lifeline for pubs in helping them generate much needed revenue after the first six months of last year. There was no evidence of a spike in infection when pubs reopened in the summer, so it’s really difficult for me to understand any blame on the hospitality sector. 

We, and our venues, went above and beyond to put in place Covid-secure measures. I do hope they replicate another incentive scheme because our sector will need it. But, we need to win back public confidence as well and encourage them to come back out.

What were the main challenges for pubs, and the wider sector, during the government’s tiered approach to lockdown in autumn?

Bringing in restrictions, like curfew and restricting alcohol sales to being just a part of a substantial meal, were decisions taken without solid evidence. It’s been absolutely proven that neither of those restrictions had any impact on the pandemic. For us, it was so economically damaging. 

If you were a wet-based pub and can only serve alcohol, you are de-facto closed. In regards to curfew, it prevented consumers from coming out because they would only have a set amount of time so there wouldn’t be any point going to the pub. The tiered system was hugely damaging for us. We weren’t taken into consideration. 

They fundamentally undermined our pub business model. I’m hoping now that we’re moving into reopening they will have a better understanding of what it takes in order for us to trade viably as well as maintaining Covid secure measures in place, but the constant chopping and changing through tier levels is very difficult to manage. 

If you think about it from a brewers perspective, it was very difficult to forecast how much beer they should brew, how much volume would be ordered or consumed. Hopefully now we will be seeing this being the last closure we’ll be reopening for the long haul and I hope we won’t see that constant chopping and changing.

The government’s recent Budget for 2021 included £1.5bn in support for the industry and a beer duty freeze. How far do these measures go in assisting the sector’s recovery and what more needs to be done for pubs?

I thought it was a great reopening budget for pubs and brewers, but there do remain many issues for the sector. The VAT cut was welcome but it doesn’t help wet-based pubs as they couldn’t take advantage as it didn’t include alcoholic drinks. So you know, we’d still love to see that taken further, we need to see a permanent cut in VAT. 

Business rates cut were good, but it’s temporary. It’s tapered, it’s capped. Unfortunately, they didn’t do what Scotland and Wales did, which would give 100% relief for the entire year. That gives some certainty whilst people are recovering, paying down debt, making good on the losses last year, and then getting into a period of stability and growth. 

That rate system that also needs reform and we need to look to make sure that pubs will pay a fair and proportionate share of that. At the moment, they’re paying a disproportionate portion of that, around five times the turnover, so we need to get business rates for the long haul. Of course, the beer duty freeze is very welcome that we would love to see a beer duty cut.

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