Thursday, 22 April 2021

Pubs 'sacrificed' to control virus

Pubs 'sacrificed' to control virus

PUBS are being “sacrificed” in the fight to control the coronavirus pandemic, says the boss of Brakspear.

Tom Davies criticised the Government as Henley and South Oxfordshire moved into tier 2 following the end of the second national lockdown on Wednesday.

This means that pubs can only sell alcohol if it is part of a “substantial meal” and many wet-led pubs will remain closed as a result. Pubs can now stay open until 11pm instead of 10pm but last orders must be called an hour before closing.

Mr Davies, chief executive of the Henley pub company, said: “The latest announcement is a real kick in the teeth for the whole industry — the Government have totally deserted us.

“They listened to the industry earlier in the year and there was a collaborative approach but now Gove, Johnson and Hancock are making decisions that will have a huge impact on publicans. These rules are just being put in with no scientific backing and there is no evidence that the virus is spreading in hospitality.

“People have spent a huge amount of money to make these places as safe as possible. We are sacrificial lambs that have been thrown to the slaughter.

“The hospitality industry gives the treasury billions of pounds and they will need us when they look to recover from this crisis.”

Mr Davies said Brakspear would lose money for the first time in its 250-year history. “It is a very worrying time,” he said. “This is a really important time for the industry and as much as 25 per cent of annual profit is made in December.

“We are trying to cut costs accordingly and conserve as much cash as we can. January and February is a tough time for the industry. We would hope that come March and April time that there will be a lot of pent-up demand and that we will be able to thrive.

“We are all in it together and that is the message we are trying to send to our tenants.

“We all want to survive this situation and be in a position to see our customers again when the virus has gone.”

The Saracen’s Head in Greys Road, Henley, is among the pubs that won’t open as long as the area remains in tier 2.

Colin Roberson, who has run the Brakspear pub with his wife Melanie for 23 years, said: “It is just not viable for us. Doing food is just not the way we’ve modelled the business.

“We are a sports pub and we have three televisions, including a giant screen outdoors. We are sports-
orientated and the football brings in a big crowd.

“We were looking forward to tier 1, where we could serve drinks, because we have a big outdoor area and we are probably the leading sports pub in Henley.”

Mr Roberson said he felt putting Henley in tier 2 was a mistake.

“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “They’ve taken one solution and applied it to everyone. It feels like another national lockdown but by a different name.

“It is our livelihood and there aren’t many cases here. It should have been done on individual areas but then that would’ve been a mammoth task and then there would’ve been arguments about it. I have a feeling we will be shut until the middle of January and that’s being optimistic. My pessimistic side says we won’t be open again until March.

“The vaccine might make some difference and we will have to see what that brings.”

Mr Roberson said he was grateful to Brakspear for reducing the rent this year.

“They have been absolutely fabulous throughout this and they can only do so much,” he said. “I feel sorry for them as well because they will be struggling.”

The award-winning Bird in Hand in Greys Road, Henley, is also staying closed.

Graham Steward, who has been behind the bar with his wife Celia since 1993, said: “I’m quite lucky in that I don’t have any rent to pay but I do feel desperately sorry for the pubs that do.

“I don’t know why they’ve included food. I don’t know what the difference is between sitting in a pub with a pint and sitting with a pint and something to eat but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

“Traditionally, we do sausage rolls, pork pies and pasties but they probably won’t be regarded as a substantial meal and we won’t qualify.”

The pub has eight tables inside and although there are another 10 outdoors, Mr Steward says he would need to install outdoor heaters to make this suitable for customers during the winter.

He said: “I have a lot of people who would normally come in on their own. We have always been a sports bar and people like coming in to watch the football and cricket.

“We would probably have 60 to 80 people watching a rugby international but at the moment we can only get about 20 people in if we are lucky.

“I think we will just have to live with it but it will be interesting to see if they change the tiers in a couple of weeks.”

Earlier this year, the pub was named the best in South Oxfordshire for a record sixth time by the Campaign for Real Ale.

Claire Wakefield, who runs the Old Bell in Bell Street, Henley, has decided to start selling food in order to stay open.

The Brakpsear pub now offers paninis, meatballs, nachos and vegetarian options.

Ms Wakefield said putting this area in tier 2 was “ridiculous”. “It is as nonsensical as the 10pm curfew,” she said. “To put more restrictions on wet-led pubs when there are already very few left makes it very tough.

“I don’t understand the logic — what is the difference between just having a pint and having it with a sausage roll and bit of salad?

“We are just like any other establishment that is following the rules and making sure that everyone is safe.”

Ms Wakefield, who took over as tenant just before the first national lockdown, also praised Brakspear for reducing her rent during quieter periods of the year.

She said: “They have been absolutely fantastic and really supportive the whole way through.

“I’m still afloat and I am yet to fail at anything, so I don’t plan on failing now. I think the hospitality sector once again feels let down.”

The Rising Sun in Witheridge Hill has re-opened and landlady Kate Makin is hoping for a profitable December.

She said: “Obviously, it’s not great but we have to do what we can to make sure everybody is safe.

“I am quite lucky because I am already a foodie pub and I’m hoping it will be busy. I only took over in January so I have not had a Christmas here yet.

“The tricky part is the rule on households being the only people allowed indoors. With the rule of six, people could meet their friends but now it is going to be quite difficult.

“The substantial meal element is not very exact. If someone has a bowl of chips, does that count, or does it have to be more of a main meal? It is a bit vague and it could be more specific about what is allowed.”

She added: “A lot of pubs use the summer to pay for the winter and they’ve not had as much success as they would normally have.

“Pubs are going out of business and even though I’m doing okay, I worry about other people.”

Half of the tables have been removed from the Brakspear pub, which also has a marquee in the garden capable of holding 36 people.

Staff have their temperature checked regularly and the pub is deep cleaned every morning.

The pub used to operate a one-way system by keeping the fire escape open but it will now be using a traffic light system through the main entrance.

Miss Makin said: “I think people are much more aware and careful now.”

The Cherry Tree in Stoke Row would normally serve lunch between noon and 3pm and dinner between 6pm and 9pm but is now offering food all day.

Dan Redfern, who runs the pub, said: “Due to the need to continue to serve food between 3pm and 6pm, I have had to hire another chef to make sure we have enough cover and enable us to remain open.

“It makes an already difficult situation even harder for us. It may put people off coming out for a drink if they are not able to socialise with friends unless they are outside. I don’t agree with it at all —  the industry is already struggling.

“I know they have to do what they have to do but the limitations on an already damaged industry will make it really hard to keep going.”

He set up a marquee for up to 50 people in October but this is now classified as indoor space so is only suitable for people in the same household.

Now he is to erect a second marquee with side openings, which will allow it to count as outdoor seating and have up to eight tables.

Mr Redfern said: “We just want to be able to invite everyone to the pub and do what we can within the restrictions. We are doing everything we possibly can.”

The Cherry Tree donated 1,200 main meals to families in need during the second lockdown.

The Government’s Covid Winter Plan states that a substantial meal is a full breakfast, main lunchtime meal, or evening meal, but there have been call to make guidance needs to be clearer.

The tiers will be reviewed regularly with the first review due on December 16.

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