Reopening pubs will get our lockdown drinking back in check

One of the perhaps unsurprising impacts of lockdown has been a change in our drinking habits. Recent research from Drinkaware shows furloughed workers and people now working from home rather than an office admit to having had a drink earlier in the day, and drinking on days they wouldn’t have before the pandemic. Why not pour a drink as soon as you close your laptop at 5.00?  And with every day seeming the same as the previous one, why make any of them drink free days?

The problem is that little habits like these can become ingrained in the long term and even contribute to an increased tolerance for alcohol. And with furlough set to continue until October for some workers, and working from home likely to become a permanent pattern for others, there’s a real danger that many people will be putting their health at risk by consistently exceeding the low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week.

There is a lot about life pre-lockdown that helped us moderate how much we drink. Drinking at home means alcohol is available 24/7 and, pubs, bars and restaurants will play a role in getting a lot of people people out of their lockdown drinking patterns. Drinking in the pub is controlled and supervised and, importantly, alcohol serves are exactly measured – unlike the generous free pours so many have been helping themselves to in their kitchens or back gardens over recent months!

According to Kantar research earlier in lockdown, 56% of people were looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant when they reopen. Unsurprisingly, younger people are more comfortable about going out to eat or drink than older age groups at a higher COVID-19 risk.  And we’re all expecting to see new anti-virus measures such as social distancing, hand sanitiser and enhanced hygiene, to reassure us.

It’s interesting to see why we’re so keenly anticipating the end of the hospitality lockdown. Nearly two-thirds of people cited catching up with friends, and around half of us are planning a celebration or romantic occasion.  I think it’s the informal sociability of the pub that we’re looking forward to – the ability to turn up, as you are, share your highs and lows with friends or friendly bar staff, join in a quiz or listen to live music. Great pub experiences hinge on social connections, which is what we’ve all missed over the last three months.

In all of this, alcohol is definitely optional rather than compulsory and increasing numbers of pubgoers, particularly in younger age groups, are enjoying everything that the pub has to offer – except the alcohol. It helps that the range of ‘no and low’ alcohol drinks has never been better, so choosing to go without alcohol doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or flavour. Any licensees who have a chance to review their drinks range before opening their doors again should, as a priority, be making sure they have a great ‘no and low’ alcohol selection.

It’s also worth noting that, despite the uptick in home drinking, many people have developed positive behaviours to protect their health during the pandemic. According to recent research from CGA 3, a third of us are exercising more and a quarter are buying healthier foods. Nine per cent have cut out alcohol completely. Some of these good habits will surely stick once we come out of lockdown.

Let’s hope that the reopening of the pub, as an environment that encourages moderate drinking, combined with an increased desire to lead a healthier lifestyle, will help to reverse the excessive drinking developed by many during lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on many aspects of our life, quite possibly for years to come; wouldn’t it be good if a better relationship with alcohol could be one positive to emerge from it?  

Guest blog: Rupert Thompson, managing director and owner, Hogs Back Brewery

At the time of writing, we have no firm idea of when the Covid-19 lockdown might be lifted, for the nation in general or for pubs – though it looks as though hospitality will be one of the last industries to reopen.

Planning for reopening is therefore challenging to say the least. We will need to make a number of fundamental changes to the way we run pubs, at least in the short term, and the sooner we can come up with some creative solutions, the better prepared we’ll be when we can finally reopen the doors to crowds of thirsty customers.

And I think we can be confident of an early rush back to the pub; according to a recent Kantar poll, 56% of people are looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant, putting it third after seeing family and friends again. The real question is what happens after that post-pandemic euphoria, and I think we have to be prepared for a significant drop in pub trade.

People’s drinking habits have changed already and will change further as we remain in lockdown. Everyone’s enjoying Friday night drinks with friends via Zoom, or pub quizzes on Facebook Live, and who’s to say they’ll replace all these virtual activities with real ones the minute pubs reopen? New habits develop, and some may stick.

Partly, it’s about money: many people have experienced drops in income, or are feeling nervous about their financial future, so discretionary spending like pub trips will be under pressure. There’s also going to be nervousness about going out, particularly among older people or those with health problems. Will they really fancy a pint enough to put their health on the line? 

Put these factors together, and I think we are looking at a much-reduced pub market in the short term.  Every year, the on-trade cedes a percentage or two to the off-trade and the pandemic will accelerate this. A 5% shift towards off-sales wouldn’t be surprising – and once lost, it won’t be recovered.

Of course, some pubs will be impacted more than others. Large, city centre pubs who rely on crowds of drinkers will suffer, and some small pubs who were barely viable will have been tipped over the edge.  However, some pubs in tourist destinations could do well as people choose to ‘staycation’ rather than risk travel abroad.

Changes in working patterns will also affect pub visits. With more homeworking, pubs in city centres will lose their after-work drinkers, but suburban or rural pubs should gain custom from stir-crazy homeworkers enjoying a pint or a pie in their local. Pubs who have geared up to offer takeaways or home deliveries should be able to continue this in the long term, as a percentage of customers will have discovered they prefer their Sunday pub roast at home. 

Despite silver linings for some, there’s no doubt that pubs are going to have a hard time and to survive, they’ll need to push down on their overheads – particularly rent and rates. The Government’s Covid-19 rates holiday is a tacit admission that rates are a heavy burden, and will hopefully lead to an overhaul of the current unfair system.  At the same time, commercial landlords will have to accept much lower yields – possibly as much as 50% of what they have been receiving – for the next 2-3 years.  

If social distancing measures are imposed, it will change the very nature of the pub, as a place where people gather to socialise with friends, family, or fellow sports fans.  Whether British pubgoers will adapt to drinking at in their own marked-out area at the bar or an isolated table remains to be seen.

Food service in pubs is likely to change from table service to collection at a counter, to remove the interaction – and cost – of a waiter. Table ordering apps will become more widely used, along with booking systems with tight windows, while simplified menus could be introduced to allow kitchen teams to keep within defined work areas. Pub gardens will be very popular and licensees should make the most of these assets with more seating – subject to social distancing – lighting and weather-proofing for year-round use.

Like everyone who works in, and loves, the pub industry, I will of course be hoping that much of my more pessimistic crystal ball gazing proves to be just that, and that the great British pub does what it’s done for centuries and evolves to stay firmly at the heart of people’s lives, while providing a rewarding livelihood for thousands of licensees and their teams.  We should all raise a pint to that!

Rupert Thompson is managing director and owner of Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey, brewers of TEA, or Traditional English Ale, one of the leading cask ales in the south east. He previously worked for Bass and Morland, and set up Refresh which brewed Ushers, Lowenbrau, Wychwood, Brakspear and Duchy Original beers. A CAMRA member for more than 20 years, Rupert was one of the original founders of both Cask Marque and the Beer Academy.  This column first appeared in the June 2020 issue of What’s Brewing.

Pubs in the pandemic: community heroes


The team at Cwmbran Fire Station receive food from Brains pub The Blinkin Owl

Working with PubAid is always a wonderful reminder of the great work that pubs do at the heart of their communities, and never more so than during this time of national emergency. Despite the catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on our industry, countless licensees and their teams across the country are putting people before profit and turning their pubs into invaluable hubs of community support.

Des O’Flanagan, PubAid co-founder, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic may have closed pubs for now, but their support for their local communities remains undiminished as licensees up and down the country adapt to offer local people practical, social and emotional support to help them weather this unprecedented crisis.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

Many have adapted their menus to takeaway or delivery, with a number providing free meals to local pensioners, others setting up village shops to serve those unable to travel, and generally acting as a hub to co-ordinate community efforts to support vulnerable residents. There’s plenty of support for NHS and other key workers – turning over car parks and in some cases pub rooms for their use.

Just as importantly, many pubs have found ways to give their regulars some of the social and emotional benefits they gain from a visit to the pub. A number have set up helplines to offer local housebound people a much-needed social interaction, others have organised on-line pub quizzes.

We’ve published a selection of stories about inspiring community pub heroes below – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

When Mother’s Day became an early Covid-19 casualty, Brawns Den in Durham donated all the food they’d planned to serve families to local food banks. 

In similar vein, The Cross Keys in Coleorton in Leicestershire delivered 50 lunches from pizzas to Sunday roasts to the community on Mother’s Day.

The Old White Bear in Keighley had taken 129 bookings for Mother’s Day but rather than let down their customers, they made all the meals available for takeway instead, and are continuing to operate a take-out service.

Pub operator Brains had food worth £100,000 sitting in their 106 managed pubs as the lockdown started. So they decided to give it all away to local NHS and key workers, care homes, food banks and other worthy causes.  Their donations helped more than 40 groups across south and west Wales, including Cwmbran Fire Station, who took some of the food given away by local Brains pub The Blinkin Owl.  Brains chief executive Alistair Darby said: “We gave away everything that was going to go out of date while our pubs were closed – much better to have it used by those in need than let it go to waste.”

The Myrtle Tavern in Leeds has stepped up to support the vulnerable in their local community, dropping off care packages to people self-isolating or unable to shop for themselves. Packages contain vital supplies – tea, milk, biscuits, toilet roll and a bottle of Guinness!

The Plough & Harrow in Leytonstone has donated soft drinks to the local hospital for staff to enjoy on shift, and alcoholic drinks for those who want to take them home. They have also donated to other key workers such as post workers and refuse collectors, and have set up a Facebook page encouraging other pubs to offer the same support for the NHS

Lesters in Margate has made its car park available only to NHS workers at the nearby hospital, who are also benefiting from the pub’s takeaway food service.  Licensee Barry is doing all he can to support the community, despite being himself in his 70s.

Food deliveries from the Swan in Addingham

Pedal power is delivering pub meals to residents in Addingham, Ilkley. Jon and Amy, licensees at The Swan in the village, have invested in a bike to bring their tasty pub meals, cooked from fresh, to local people.

Licensee Carole at The Clifton Arms in Blackburn raised more than £400 from the pub’s community in just half an hour and bought fruit boxes from a local producer to be delivered to the NHS staff at the local hospital. In the last week, the pub also delivered over 40 essential boxes to those who were in isolation or unable to leave home.

The White Hart in Nettlebed near Henley has set up a shop in the pub, offering vital supplies to local residents, and are cooking a daily hot meal, ready for collection if ordered the day before. A poll on the Nettlebed Facebook asking residents if they wanted the shop to continue got 127 votes in favour – and none against! Good work by licensee Ted Docherty and his team of live-in staff who are working on a voluntary basis to serve the local community.

The aptly-named Who’d Have Thought It in St Dominick in Cornwall is offering takeway and home delivery to the local community, and donating £1 for every order to a newly- established food bank offering vital supplies to the vulnerable. Great community support from licensee Tracey Fleming and her team.

The team at the Blue Ball, Rutland

The Blue Ball in Braunston, Rutland, has been making up food boxes for the local community. Licensees Dom and Pip also set up a fund so that people can make a donation to purchase a box for those in financial hardship.

The Chestnut Group of 11 pubs in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex has adapted its offer with freshly-cooked meals available for collection and delivery, live pub quizzes, Q+A sessions with the pub chefs on social media and online breadmaking demos.  They’ve also opened shops at the Three Blackbirds near Newmarket and Globe Inn at Wells.

To help keep customers socially connected through the lockdown, The Fleece Inn, Skipton, has moved its weekly Tuesday Pub Quiz online, with quizzers able to see licensee Tim read out the questions.  And The Portsmouth Arms in Basingstoke is running two quizzes a day – one for children at 5.00 pm and one for adults at 8.00pm. Around 4,500 people tuned in on the first day!

At The Bull & Bush in Shepshed, Essex, licensees Laura and Nez have set up a Facebook group for their regulars to share quizzes, music and more.