Britain's pubs: we'll soon see the value of them, but will it be too late?

John Harris
·6-min read

Long before the pandemic, the sight of a disused British pub had become so commonplace as to seem almost banal. In 2018, it was estimated that a quarter of UK pubs had shut over the previous two decades. And last year, the number of closures was put at 994, just under 20 a week.

The roots of this story lay in a range of factors: property development, the often debt-stacked finances of the pub companies who own many premises, and the lifestyle shifts that meant some of us would now rather drink at home and do our socialising via our phones. But the upshot was miserably obvious. Pubs are not to everyone’s taste, and some are lifeless hellholes – but at their best, they offer a kind of everyday fellowship that the communities that lose them tend to miss.

Now, Covid-19 has pushed this saga into an entirely new phase, as pub closures linked to the pandemic find their way into local headlines. The British Beer and Pub Association says that 72% of the businesses in its sector could soon close, and this stark suggestion is accompanied by a biting sense of unfairness. As people in the trade see it, while the end of England’s lockdown might – in theory, at least – offer new hope to some organisers of sporting events and businesses from hairdressers to bookshops, pubs are faced with a continuing mess of impossibility.

In the summer, the government told us that going to the pub was almost a patriotic duty; now it seems to have tangled up the industry in a pernickety web. Tier 3 restrictions mean pubs must be closed, and have only the almost meaningless option of takeaways or deliveries. Under the new tier 2 restrictions, only single households will be able to meet indoors, and opening will be dependent on people buying a “substantial meal” – which entails the absurd idea of thousands of pubs summarily reinventing themselves as restaurants. Even the new tier 1, which applies only to the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, allows only table service, with last orders at 10pm.

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These new rules will take effect pre-Christmas, the period when pubs usually make a huge share of their annual income – the worst possible time. Whatever you think of the supposed logic at work, the unavoidable fact is that an already fragile aspect of our national life is going to teeter into further decline.

Last week, I spoke to the licensee of a pub in Marple Bridge, Greater Manchester. Jo Farrell has been in charge of the Windsor Castle – a solid, stone-built place whose history goes back to the 19th century – for 12 years. “It’s not just a place where people come and have a drink,” she told me. “For older people who come in, it can be the highlight of their day. A lot of them live on their own. And if there’s a problem, like someone’s telly not working, the younger end of the clientele are always happy to step in.”

Before the pandemic, Farrell said, “we were ticking along beautifully”. During the couple of post-lockdown months when the pub traded in the midst of exacting restrictions, things were looking up. To date, she has received a government grant of £10,000, and support from the brewery from which she leases the pub has apparently been faultless. But she and the community she serves are still staring into a grimly uncertain future.

On 18 October, she, her husband and a member of staff tested positive for coronavirus. They contacted all their recent customers and shut their doors. In any case, the fact that the pub does not serve food meant that new restrictions imposed on Greater Manchester would have led to temporary closure anyway. Now her area will be put in the new tier 3, and the pub will stay shut. “I’m hoping to get through,” she said, hesitantly. “But this crisis will send a lot of pubs to the wall.” Farrell’s level of financial loss, she said, “terrifies me”, though more frightening still is the prospect of permanent closure. “The pub is the community here. Losing it would just take the heart out.”

Other people I spoke to were even more anxious. In rural Leicestershire, Nick Holden and his family run The Geese and Fountain, which they rescued four years ago after a long period of closure. In normal times, they would serve drinks and meals and offer bed and breakfast; during the pandemic, they have diversified into such services as fruit and veg deliveries and takeaway food – all the more important given the recent closure of the only village shop.

The family’s only means of subsistence is currently a £500-a-week payment from the state, and they are facing life in tier 3. “Three of us are on antidepressants, and from talking to other landlords and managers I don’t think we’re unusual in that,” Holden told me. “We’ve had eight months of not knowing what we’re doing: hardly any communication from our landlord, and hardly any communication from the government.”

Perhaps it is old-fashioned to feel a deep attachment to these businesses. But when I was 18 I worked in a neighbourhood pub, and saw things that I have since glimpsed in many other places. The mixing of generations gently enforced a certain set of social conventions. There was a sense that some people’s loneliness could at least be temporarily lifted by the crossword puzzles and small talk that defined the “early doors” shift.

On some Saturday nights, the pub was a giddy, surreal place to be. There was misery, excess, and occasional violence too. But it was in the nature of a controlled environment that these things were usually prevented from boiling over, and their deeper causes were sometimes even sorted out. If the pub was at the heart of its regulars’ lives, then there were reasons beyond the easy pleasures of boozing.

These modest institutions, in short, are worth saving. Voices in the industry say the only viable way out lies in a less arbitrary set of restrictions running alongside exacting safety measures, and also a last spurt of government support that will get pubs through the uncertain period from now until the rollout of a vaccine.

At a time when everyone seems to want more from the state to ease the pressure, aid for pubs might look like a tough sell. But a reminder of their importance will sooner or later hit millions of us – perhaps when, newly inoculated, we look for signs of the shared life we want to resume, and places to celebrate. At this rate, far too many will be gone.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist