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2. The impact of coronavirus

The future of London’s pubs

2. The impact of coronavirus

The pandemic has brought restrictions on meetings indoors and out, and has seen pubs forced to close, reopen, recalibrate and adjust to new rules, only then to close, and re-open again, most recently for outdoor table service only, but with the aim of fuller re-opening in May 2021. This has caused huge difficulties for hospitality in general, but arguably pubs in particular. Whilst the crisis has seen pubs back in the news, the news has mainly been bad. The British Beer and Pub Association estimated that 90 per cent of UK pub staff were on furlough at one point in the crisis. 10 Many pubs are struggling, and it seems likely that many will not survive.

London’s pubs have been particularly hard hit: takings for July 2020 were down 10 per cent more in the capital than the UK average. 11 In September 2020, when pubs and restaurants were open again, sales were 28 per cent below the previous year’s, compared to a small increase across the country. 12

Business rate relief and the furlough scheme have helped, and VAT discounts and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ offered some limited help to pubs serving food, but not ‘wet-led’ pubs. The more recent offer of a £1,000 grant for such pubs over the Christmas period also seemed unlikely to prove adequate to sustain them through a long winter. Our roundtable participants pointed to the time, money and expense incurred in making pubs ‘covid-secure’, damaging the viability of those pubs which have been able to open even when permitted to do so in 2020/21.

One specific factor in the capital has been that central London’s economy has been hit especially hard. Even when the economy ‘reopened’ in summer 2020, workplace trips and footfall remained significantly down in central London, compared to pre-pandemic levels, and compared to other world cities. 13 The collapse of both tourism and commuting, alongside a reduction in non-essential travel into central areas, meant that city centre pubs have struggled. That so many pubs in the City of London, for example, are ‘wet-led’, with little space and no capacity to provide food, has compounded this problem. Early signals suggest that April 2021 saw a sharp rise in footfall in the West End of London, but levels are still some way below where they were pre-pandemic.

Outer London pubs tended to do better. Londoners’ new working and living habits mean that some outer London pubs have the potential to draw in more customers, especially during the traditional working week, once lockdown measures are lifted. It is possible that we will see a ‘rebalancing’ towards outer London, at least in the short-to-medium term. The future of central London’s pubs is especially uncertain.

Whilst many pubs have attempted to adapt and to further diversify their offering during the periods in which they have been permitted to open in between lockdowns, many found this impossible, and simply stayed closed throughout.

Interviewees considered that the government’s legislation and guidance towards pubs has been inconsistent, often short term in its nature, and frequently poorly communicated, causing confusion as well as practical difficulty in making pubs covid-compliant. It has not always been clear as to what is guidance and what is a legal requirement. There is a sense that the guidance has also been driven by public opinion or presentational concerns rather than a practical understanding of how pubs really operate, and how this affects customers.

Both roundtable participants and interviewees expected that when the government’s furlough and other support schemes come to an end, there will be a great deal of fallout. A large amount of loan finance has been provided, and it is likely that these debts will increase insolvencies. Many pubs operate at extremely tight margins, and struggle to build up reserves. Those without large reserves have struggled to stay afloat in the pandemic. It seems likely that there will be many casualties and many independently-run or small-chain pubs that will be taken over by larger chains.