Comment by Peter Martin

Some good may yet come out of the Dominic Cummings chaos. In a move that could be interpreted as a way to win back public popularity, the Prime Minister has hinted tantalizingly that pubs and restaurants may be allowed to reopen earlier than first suggested – with pub gardens and restaurant terraces earlier still.

These may yet prove to be no more than throwaway lines delivered to backbench MPs – as no firm commitment or timetable for all this is yet to emerge.

But the particular case for keeping gardens and terraces closed appears increasingly weak. What can be the rationale for allowing the public to buy beer and food from a pub window to consume at home or in a nearby park, but not in that pub’s own garden, where physical distancing could be enforced?

There is an illogicality to much of Government’s recent announcements around loosening the lockdown, with nannies and cleaners allowed in homes but not grandparents, and small groups in domestic gardens for barbecues but, again, not pub gardens.

Perhaps the ministers need reminding why licensed premises exist in the first place? They are licensed so they can be regulated to provide a safe and supervised environment for the sale and consumption of alcohol. At present, it seems the public can drink anywhere but.

It may be that licensees just need to turn their outside spaces into street markets, which apparently will be allowed next month.

There is an understandable concern among some pub and bar operators that the restrictions necessary for running COVID-compliant pubs and bars might cause extra problems for staff especially at the end of an evening – and that might warrant the intervention of the authorities.

No standing rules, pre-booked table-only service, whether inside or out, should help to alleviate that risk, alongside active hosting to guide consumers through the new pub, bar or restaurant environment.

More importantly, the stories around the country, particularly in local media, of police being called out to illegal street and house parties are legion and ought to raise concern. So, getting the public safely back into properly controlled licensed premises would seem a sensible, if not urgent, objective.

Opening up outside areas, especially gardens, in pubs and restaurant as soon as possible as a first step towards a wider reopening programme for the hospitality sector seems both logical and desirable – and the safety protocols are already there to be followed.

What the industry needs, as always, is certainty and a workable notice period to get everything in place. So that means the Government making its mind up on the detail now.

The sector is deep in planning mode and operators know they will need to be flexible – but even the best-laid plans do not include a chapter on ministerial mind-reading.

     

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