September 22, 2020 4.09 pm This story is over 15 months old

Barry Turner: Hospitality sector COVID scapegoated again

A ridiculous and futile move

The government’s plan to curfew pubs at 10pm is absurd and counter-productive.

In yet another change of government policy on the COVID-19 pandemic we will see pubs and restaurants close at 10pm as of Thursday. This it is suggested will lower the ‘spike’ or ‘second wave’ in infections that was predicted as long ago as last spring.

It is a ridiculous and futile move based on what seems to be a ‘be seen to be doing something’ strategy.

What it will actually do is deal the final blow to many businesses in this sector and cast more people on to the ballooning unemployment queue.

The cost to date of the governments COVID policies has reduced the UK economy to a basket case that will take decades to recover from. The very last thing that the UK can afford now is the loss of more businesses and jobs.

What is very notable in the latest strategies is the lack of any suggestion that this time a financial safety net will be outstretched for these already badly damaged enterprises to fall into.

How many staff will be furloughed this time? How much in grants can businesses expect to prevent them from becoming insolvent? What about supply chains and retailers who depend on selling to the hospitality sector.

On the face of it controlling the social gatherings of people does appear to be a sensible method of reducing the spread of the virus, except of course it doesn’t — if only life were really that simple.

So, let’s look at the practicalities. A night out with the lads or the lasses would usually start at about 8pm and go on until midnight. We have already forgotten what the nightclub scene looked like and that is not likely to come back now for a very long time.

So now such social gatherings will come to a resounding anti-climax, not at the end of the evening but in the middle of it. The lads and lasses already studiously abiding by the rule of six must wend their weary way home after a brief interlude of a couple of hours. Really?

Let’s look at a more likely outcome. Few friends gather at the pub, no more than six of course. They have a few beers and then the clock chimes ten. They then go off to the impromptu house party to carry on the fun.

Those of us who remember the draconian and utterly futile licensing hours of most of the 20th century can recall the traditions of the time, the carry out and the lock in, affectionately known as the late taste.

When the pubs closed at 11pm and 10.30pm on Sundays the drinking did not stop. What makes the COVID planners think it will now? It is after all their ‘logic’ that suggests that if we send everyone home early, they will not be drunk and careless about social distancing.

Closing at 10pm will not have any effect on this at all any more than the licensing hours of years ago did. The night out can start earlier shifting the concentration of customers to a different part of the day. Same number of people different time.

House parties can proliferate. Of course, those holding them can be prosecuted but is that what we have a police force for? What about the social consequences of that?

The later opening pubs allow for people to come and go in a steady flow, the early drinkers, the mid evening quick pint drinkers and those who want to stay a bit later who saunter off home at closing time.

A steady flow will now be replaced by two possibilities neither of them COVID safe. The pubs may be open for a shorter time with more people crammed into them. An infectious hotspot. Or, they lose customers, not only the later drinker but the drinkers who do not like packed and noisy pubs. No one in the hospitality sector has that luxury, with much of it on its knees and about to fall further losing customers will be the final nail.

With no end to the pandemic even remotely in sight, this will completely wreck the sector and it is unlikely to ever recover.

With no evidence that pubs are a particularly high risk of spreading COVID, with the vast majority having taken stringent measures to control the spread, it is counter intuitive to close down one of the few success stories of this pandemic.

So, the pubs and restaurants are scapegoated again. This has far more damaging consequences than simply the business failures and job losses. A part of our culture and way of life is being destroyed here. What replaces it is not likely to be pleasant.

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Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Public Administration at the University of Lincoln.