Time flies…whether you’re having fun or not

Has it been over a year already?

Since my last set of witterings we’ve had Covember, a tier-ful December and now we’re all limping along in Lockdown 3.0.

We’ve all had to cope with many, many, MANY changes to our lives and our livelihoods during the pandemic, as evident by the more than five dozen revisions made to England’s lockdown rules in the first 9 months since March 2020. One thing that has remained consistent is the UK government’s constant turning of the screws on the hospitality sector.

When Covember first loomed, pubs and bars were threatened with a ban on takeaway alcohol sales. Thankfully we had a last-minute reprieve and were allowed to continue serving our customers outside our front door with on-the-spot growler fills to take home, but compared to spring our sales were down drastically. We blamed the weather (no chance of sitting in your garden this time around) and the fact the latest lockdown seemed less, well, locked down. It seemed lots of people were commuting and working.

We turned our attention to the crucial Christmas season. We had only the slimmest hope of allowing customers back into the bar, but brought loads of packaged seasonal stock in order to tempt our customers to do some Christmas shopping with us.

The end of Covember meant the return to tiers, which brought with it a new fly in the ointment: the substantial meal requirement. Now, to say we’re a wet-led bar is an understatement. We’re 100% wet. We’re absolutely soaking wet. Without a kitchen, our bar had to remain closed. We continued with local deliveries and on-the-spot sales, manning our front door five days a week.

There was some good news in early December. Markets could go ahead (we had three lined up for the month, the first one only days after the announcement). Wet-led pubs were offered a £1000 Christmas support payment. And the first Covid-19 vaccine was approved.

The markets and the Christmas shopping season were a huge success for us. Our customers proved extremely generous and after totting up the receipts our takings for December 2020 were a third of what we took in December 2019. This was quite the boon, considering that takings for November 2020 were a sixth of what we took in November 2019.

The Christmas support payment took about a month to arrive (about average in our experience) and judging by this tweet we should consider ourselves lucky it only took that long:-

One item of news that missed my attention amid the uproar over this paltry sum and what a substantial meal might entail was the news that the job retention bonus had been shelved. I would have been in line for £2000 on behalf of two members of staff and instead I was getting £1000 to make up for the lack of Christmas trade. According to experts in the trade, it meant the Chancellor withheld £2bn of funding from hospitality.

Still, at least the vaccine will solve everything…won’t it?

Now, I’m no epidemiololly-wotsit, but I’m expecting that Lockdown 3.0 will last for many more weeks. Tweaks will be made gradually and I’m hoping that by late February we’ll be told we can drop the delivery-only requirement on alcohol sales and resume on-the-spot sales.

The first pubs allowed to open (maybe Easter weekend?) will be those that can serve food and are able to log customer details, provide table service, require masks and impose social distancing.

All pubs might be allowed to re-open for the first bank holiday in May (expect a free-for-all if they do). Again, we will have to contend with reduced capacity, table service, masks, etc as before. In other words, I think we can expect this summer and early autumn to be a repeat of last year at best.

It seems too many unknown variables involving the virus remain. Scientists aren’t sure when the much-vaunted herd immunity might kick in (by some estimates it would require immunity in 80% of the population). By this summer our scientists will have a better understanding of how effective the vaccines are, both in terms of the number of jabs handed out and the immunity it provides.

If millions of us are vaccinated…if there’s not a surge in cases again because of schools opening…if immunity lasts more than just a few months…if the vaccine remains effective against new variants…if the new variants aren’t any deadlier…then the best-case scenario we can hope for by winter is reduced capacity at the bar, table service and mask-wearing.

That’s assuming both the general public and our government do everything they can to alleviate the crisis. Judging by the mess we are in now, it doesn’t inspire much confidence.

In other words, I personally don’t expect a return to anything near to normal until spring 2022.

That means more deliveries, more growler fills, more online tasting sessions and even more hand sanitiser. If you’re interested, in future posts I’ll share what we’ve been doing to keep business ticking over.

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