The first shock was the introduction of roadside breathalyser checks in 1967. People out for a drink could be stopped and breathalysed; failing the test led to thousands of motorists finding themselves arrested, made to take a blood test, and getting a ban from driving. Country pubs in particular were affected; landlords complained that this would lead to bankrupcies and in many cases they were right. No-one can complain, of course, about a measure that saved many lives by removing a lot of drunken drivers from the country's roads but many an old inn failed to survive financially.
The Smoking Ban
The next shock was the smoking ban. Smokers could no longer light up a cigarette to have with their pint but were obliged to huddle outside the pub in all weathers, often blocking the doorways. A few pub landlords were able to privide sheltered areas for people to smoke in but most had neither the space nor the money to spare to provide one.
Competition from Supermarkets
What made things worse was that supermarkets were selling beer at a fraction of the price that the pubs could sell it at. A smoker had a choice; drink at the bar at pub prices then stand outside in the rain with a cigarette, or sit at home with a few cans of beer costing a fraction of what the local would charge and have a cigarette whenever desired. Thousands voted with their feet; pub attendances plummetted. Whilst in 1990 80% of the beer sold in Britain was bought in pubs, but by 2015 this had dropped to less than half. For the first time, off-licences and supermarkets took the lion's share of beer sales.
Pubs began closing in large numbers; by 2019 it was reckoned that 30 were closing a day. This was not necessarily because they were financially unviable though; the demand for housing and office space has meant that was more money to be made by the demolition, or transformation, of many familiar landmarks.
All was not doom and gloom though. A lot of enterprising landlords realised that since times were changing, they had to as well. Whereas food in the average pub was often limited to a few pickled eggs, crips or pre-packed cheese and buscuit snacks a wide range of food became available from simple local produce to near-gourmet offerings in so-called gastro-pubs. Sunday lunch in the local with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding became a regular day out for many families, particularly in the North of England. The future of the English pub scene looked safe - but then came Covid.
The Covid Disaster
On 23rd March 2020 at the beginning of the Covid Pandemic prime minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown. Pubs and other hospitality establishments had to shut down immediately. This threw many a landlord into shock; not only did they still have overheads to pay for, but what about their perishable stock? Beer is best drunk fresh; once it is more than six weeks old it can be barely drinkable. It has been estimated that nearly 90 million pints of it were flushed down the drains, and substantial quantities of perishable foodstuffs were either given away or sent to landfill.
This was not the end of it. Many pubs had business interuption insurance that they thought could cover their losses; a close look at the small print, however, revealed that the vast majority of them would get nothing. Furlough payments were brought in for employees but since many landlords were self employed they had to struggle to get any financial help. In the meanwhile the situation was complicated, not only by different rules in different parts of the UK, but also because of 'stop-start' policies that hovered between a farcical 'Eat Out To Help Out' subsidy to encourage people to have meals in pubs and restaurants and complete lockdowns that often came with next to no notice.
Fast Food Deliveries
Although lockdowns meant that pubs, restaurants and fast food establishments were barred from allowing customers through the door, there was no ban on delivering food to the door. Thousands of eateries, including many pubs, started a home delivery service; after all the only other option for many was to close their doors, perhaps for good. Specialist companies such as Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats watched their businesses grow rapidly, helped by huge advertising budgets.
On the face of it it looked attractive to many worried business people; they could keep on creating meals, but instead of the customers coming to them the meals would be taken to customers directly. For many a local takeaway this was a financial lifeline; they would take an order over the telephone, and their own staff could deliver the food as soon as it was prepared.
For many places like bars and restaurants it could be a different picture however. Normally their customes would come in for a sit-down meal. They would buy a few drinks, perhaps have a bottle of wine, then a dessert and coffee afterwards
. All of this added up to a reasonable profit. By signing up for a delivery service, however, they would typically have to stump up a sizeable fee to get on the company's books plus pay another fee for each delivery. They then receive food orders from this comany and the theory was that by the time it was cooked a courier would be there to collect it. Theory and fact are often different and the chefs might have to keep food warm without spoiling it somehow.
The orders rarely included deserts, drinks and coffee which were profitable items; after all why pay restaurant prices for wine when it is half the price or less at the local supermarket? The result; big profits for fast food delivery companies, and a struggle to make ends meet for the food providers.
Hospitality venues could not plan properly because they never knew what the next day would bring in the form of fresh government directives. To provide a service to their customers they had to recruit and keep staff, mantain their premises to a good standard, buy in stock, much of it perishable. All this in the knowledge that a government decision could throw all their plans into disarray at almost zero notice.
In the event, Christmas of 2020, a time when hospitality venues could expect maximum revenue, was effectively cancelled for millions of people. Christmas 2021 looked set fair to go ahead but the threat of the new Covid Omicron variant meant that in Wales and Scotland rigid restrictions were put in place and it England it was only confirmed that parties could go ahead at virtually the last minute; far too late for countless families that had cancelled their bookings for meals out.
It was said in late 2021 that the number of people who died within 28 days of a positive Covid test was now around 0.3% of those affected. It must be stressed that these are people who died with a Covid infection, but not necessarily because of it! There are many people who now question whether we are more afraid of this virus that we should be; but there is of course always the possibility of other, perhaps more lethal, variations coming along.
In the meanwhile please spare some sympathy for your local pub managers and landlords. They have a lot on their plates.