boris johnson coronavirus uk bar scene

British bar industry pleads for government support to save it from oblivion

17 March, 2020

The British pub and bar industry will be lost within days if the government does not take swift action to prop it up, leading operators have warned.

Yesterday evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Brits to avoid pubs, bars, theatres and cinemas as the government scrambles to stop the coronavirus spread.

“The UK pub and brewing industry is facing an existential crisis as a direct result of the guidance issued by the government,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association in a letter to Johnson. “Thousands of pubs and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost in the very short term unless a proactive package creating cash and liquidity is provided immediately to the industry.

“Forced pub closures without a meaningful support package will have a catastrophic financial and social impact.”

Bar owners were frustrated by the lack of official guidance on what they should do, and many said the government is hanging them out to dry by refusing to order bars to close.

“Johnson has hung the hospitality industry out to dry,” said drinks writer Fiona Beckett. “Conspiracy or cock-up? Really doesn’t matter, but put it right. Huge numbers of restaurants, clubs and pubs that are at the heart of communities will go bust unless government orders them to close.”

Johnson stopped short of ordering mandatory bar closures in his press conference. Operators cannot claim on insurance without government intervention. There is no official guidance on what they should do, leaving bar owners torn between closing their doors or trying to limp through the next few weeks with hardly any footfall.

“This is unhelpful in the extreme,” said McClarkin. “At the same time the absence of any financial commitment to stand behind all businesses including small community pubs is creating panic with people being fearful that their livelihoods will be destroyed.”

She added: “The government needs to give clear instructions and detail on the support package to rescue the sector and hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Hospitality is the third largest industry in the UK and leaders have called for urgent government action to save it.

James Calder, chief executive at the Society of Independent Brewers, said: “Government is right to follow the scientific advice to prevent the spread of this disease. But advising people to stay away from pubs, rather than ordering them to close is an ill thought through halfway house.

“Government’s package of measures announced at the Budget last week were a step in the right direction but we need more. A lot more. Pubs, and the small breweries that supply them now need direct Government help if they are to survive.”

McClarkin added: “Urgent measures to support cash flows and enable cost reductions is an absolute necessity. Government action now will save thousands of jobs and save our pubs.

“Support for pubs now is an investment in the long-term future of communities across the UK without it we risk losing our community assets forever.”

Johnson has admitted that the Budget announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week will now have to be ripped up due to yesterday’s announcement. The budget promised £7 billion to support firms and self-employed individuals impacted by the coronavirus spread, but economists now warn that figure will be a mere drop in the ocean.

Johnson has now promised a new approach “across our whole tax and spend system” to ensure “we give business space in which they come back from this”. Airline carriers will be at the front of the queue, but the hospitality trade is fighting for its fair share of any funds use to prop up the business community during these unprecedented times.

“If we get it right, we can make sure it’s short term,” said Johnson. “There is absolutely no reason worldwide economies can’t come roaring back.”

Sunak will announce details of a major bailout package designed to keep thousands of businesses afloat later today. The bar trade is doing all it can to present its case to the Treasury.

“This is catastrophic for businesses and jobs,” said UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls. “The government has effectively shut the hospitality industry without any support, and this announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good, and hundreds of thousands of job losses.

“Let’s hope Rishi Sunak takes the right measures today, which provide urgent cash flow relief. Loans and corporation tax won’t be enough. We need big measures like France, America, Germany, Ireland and Denmark to fund staff who will otherwise lose their jobs.”

Business rates experts at Colliers International have called upon the UK government to introduce a business rates deferment scheme last three to six months in order to help businesses impacted by the coronavirus.

“We are in constant dialogue with our clients, who are strong companies, but with footfall in retail centres falling off a cliff and the hospitality sector seeing similar drops in trade, it is ridiculous that such large amounts of cash are being paid to the public purse when it could be used to safeguard jobs over the coming month,” said John Webber, head of business rates. “A three-month rate deferment would at least give businesses some breathing space to maintain their cash flow.”

The BBPA also called for the cancellation of all business rate payments for six months, as well as all HMRC tax payments and beer duty. It also requested a temporary redundancy scheme, similar to that which has been implemented in Denmark.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.