Although the government is playing it safe with its lockdown exit strategy, things really aren’t looking good for pubs. While, efforts are being made to enable al fresco eating and drinking spaces over the summer, Michael Gove has refused to deny reports that drinking dens might be shut until Christmas.
But should Downing Street be so pessimistic? The Czech Republic, whose plans for reopening the economy are being studied closely in Whitehall, wants to reopen pubs in June.
And surely pubs can do their bit to enforce social distancing and keep infection rates down? That’s the view of government adviser Professor Eyal Winter, who has suggested that pubs could avoid crowding by imposing a three drink limit per customer.
Here are some more ideas as to how pubs might operate in a socially-distanced world:
The Nordic Model
Plucky Sweden has made headlines around the world with its outlier approach to dealing with the Coronavirus, with its public health experts opting against a full lockdown in favour of targeted social distancing restrictions.
Authorities have let pubs and restaurants remain open, providing they follow the rules (including keeping all groups 2m away from each other and only serving customers at their tables). It’s an interesting approach for a country where access to alcohol is highly regulated (spirits, for example, can’t be bought in normal supermarkets).
Has it worked? Just about. Although locals grumble about long queues. Some bars have been penalised – and temporarily shut down – for failing to enforce the rules. Crucially, though, it doesn’t seem to have caused an uncontrollable spike in infections.
Iceland – whose geographical remoteness was always going to bring some benefits in these troubled times – has also kept its bars and restaurants open, although they’ve imposed a limit of 20 customers per establishment.
Of course the Nordic countries do have another advantage when it comes to preventing crowded pubs: the sheer price of getting a drink there. With Iceland starved of its tourism income, locals might think twice before stumping up 1400 króna (£8) for a pint.
With the government already looking to harness the power of smart-phones to slow the spread of the coronavirus, could technology play a role in getting the service economy running again?
The pub chain Wetherspoons already has its own app which allows customers to order from their tables, thus avoiding queues like in Sweden.
Could the app have other benefits too? For example, alerting customers when they’re too close to another table – or running a swimming-pool style anti-crowding system (with the app limiting each group to a 90 minute window to order drinks).
Meanwhile Apple and Google plan to release a public version of their contact tracing API for developers to experiment with. Anyone who creates a workable app for pubs won’t have to pay for their own drinks again.
Take it outside
We all know that viruses are much less likely to spread outdoors – not least as it’s easier for us to stay apart that way.
Could this be the key to reopening pubs? One government adviser – virologist Robert Dingwall – thinks so. ‘If a pub has a garden and the landlords are prepared to accept responsibility for not overcrowding that garden, I see no particular reason why it should not reopen,’ he said last month.
Evidently it’s an approach that will work better in some parts of the country than others. After all, central London pubs aren’t exactly known for their sprawling beer gardens.
Could London draw inspiration from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where city authorities have turned public spaces – including the enchanting old town – into a giant open-air café, catered by local bars and restaurants? Let’s hope so.
Lithuania isn’t the only potential inspiration. South Korea, widely regarded as the gold standard for fighting the virus, has its entire hospitality sector back online – although patrons are expected to be disinfected upon entry (a policy that wouldn’t go amiss in a few of my favoured drinking spots).
Meanwhile Israel has designed an innovative points system to decide whether citizens can safely re-enter the economy. Everyone is given a numerical score, based on their age and health conditions. Only those who score below a certain threshold are advised to go out.
The idea has had some traction here, with policy wonks suggesting that pubs might apply a maximum age limit (i.e. no drinkers over 50) to allow younger people to build up herd immunity. Though it should be noted the idea has scored badly with British voters, with 52 per cent telling pollsters it would be unfair to let the young escape lockdown first.
Even if pubs don’t get the go ahead from the government any time soon, the staggered relaxing of the lockdown might present some creative options.
The writer Ian Rankin had an ingenious idea to celebrate his birthday last month when he enjoyed a pint – using his own glass and a beer purchased from a supermarket – in the smoking area of his favourite pub. Once restrictions ease on socialising outside, it might catch on.
Some expect high-end hotels to be back online before the beginning of summer – which raises the prospect of using hotel bars. Private members clubs, likewise, have a knack for making their own rules. If the RAC and Lansdowne aren’t serving drinks in some capacity by summer, I’d be very surprised. Obviously you’ll need a membership – and probably a tie too.
And what are the odds of a good old-fashioned lock-in? Completely off the table for the time being, of course. But when rules are relaxed to permit socialising in smaller groups, might some of those gatherings end up happening with the blessing of friendly local publicans? Who knows.