It was inevitable that the lifting of lockdown would throw up contradictions that make no sense. From next Monday, children in England will spend their days in classrooms of 30, but adults won’t be able to meet in groups of more than six. Earlier in the season, childcare was reinstated before people were allowed to visit their families, throwing up the absurdity that you could have your mum round, but only if she was prepared to look after your two-year-old.
Nowhere, though, has been more divisive than the pub: how was it more important to reopen pubs than swimming pools? Why should drinkers take precedence over gym-goers? Lately, a really cruel anomaly has surfaced. Pregnant women are still not allowed to take a partner with them for scans and appointments, or even have someone with them for early labour, so you can go for a pint with your beloved, but you will be on your own when you first hear your baby’s heartbeat.
Responses to this have varied by platform. Twitter was alive with helpful suggestions (“I have an idea – why don’t pregnant women get their scans done in pubs?”), while Mumsnet was alive with fury. Yet even while criticism was mostly aimed where it belonged, at the government, there was a top note of disapproval – why are people drinking in the first place, while other people are trying to grow a human?
Meanwhile, the pub-goer-as-patriot brigade has been out in force, embodied, as so often with a culture war, in the person of Nigel Farage, back in the boozer from noon on 4 July, the first day they were allowed to open in England, uttering out loud that a pint was a “patriotic duty”, as unaware of his own absurdity as a dog with its head stuck in a bucket.
The debate travelled along the same faultlines as the bizarro fights before it – vegan sausage rolls, moderately tasty or an insult to real men? Blue passports, a waste of energy or the peak of true Britishness? Pubs-as-identities collided in the person of Tim Martin, the combative founder and chairman of Wetherspoons, ardent Brexiter, believer in herd-immunity, defender of the boozer. His pubs became a muster point for an economy-first, libertarian, anti-mask, it’s-just-the-flu worldview.
In fairness, the use of the pub as a backdrop for the fun ethno-nationalist, the hallowed space of the white British male, predates the virus by some years. Farage or Boris Johnson pulling a pint, a union flag draped artfully about, is a familiar image, although it is always a particular kind of pub. I have never seen them in a community co-op pub or next to a venison scotch egg for £3.50. Most pub-goers, though, have generally overlooked that fringe element – the pint as political stunt – and we have thus been astonished to find a left-right split open up around this most inclusive of all possible spaces. As Peter Borg-Neal, the founder and executive chairman of Oakman Inns, puts it, after reopening: “If you looked at social media, your blustering, shooting, hunting, fishing farmer was stepping down the pub pretty quickly. And leftwing journalists were hiding at home. What is that about?”
Public opinion has become sharply divided as to the human decency of visiting a pub at all. Particularly in July, newspapers were flooded with photographs of crowded bars: was it just the camera angle, or were they hugging each other? Do any of these doughnuts know what two metres means? (Or was it one metre-plus? We’ll come to that.)
As the pressures of the pandemic build up, one person’s laxity or enjoyment is ever more taken as a direct insult to another person’s caution, a division fuelled by ministers who are far too ready to blame young people and their social lives for infection trajectories that are not yet understood. The pub stands as the cathedral of all this: it is pure enjoyment. No one goes there to do press-ups or broaden their mind.
Into that kind of atmosphere, a relatively bland statement can explode. By the end of July, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, was underlining that pubs were less important than schools, and might have to close again to get kids back for autumn. Fair enough: I am the most ardent pub-goer, and arrived at the same time as Nigel on 4 July (although not at the same pub), but I can see that it is possible to drink at home, whereas kids learn less than nothing at home. Say that on social media, however, and you faced a barrage of outrage, as some pointed out that, for many people, pubs were their livelihoods. The UK’s hospitality industry employs 3 million people, who have already struggled through months of limbo, furloughed if they are lucky. (The national consensus was pretty resounding on this, however. A YouGov poll asking which, if only one, should be able to open, had 78% saying schools and 11% pubs).
There is a flipside to the generational dimension, which involves questions deeper than: “Are young people feckless?” As Borg-Neal points out, jobs in pubs are not just any jobs. “People’s first employment is often in hospitality. It gets people going. It gets people moving. It’s completely meritocratic, regardless of your education, your skin colour. I started as a cellar boy and ended up being a director at Whitbread.”
Looked at from the perspective of an 18-year-old, education and hospitality would never be pitted against one another as competing interests: you need your A-levels marked competently as much as you need your higher education as much as you need your holiday job as much as you need a functioning economy.
And what of the punters, the people who go to pubs not for patriotic reasons, or because they don’t believe in science, or prize the economy over lives, or think masks are for losers, but just for a swift drink – which is to say, almost every one? We are keeping our heads down, as are a lot of publicans, to the point that many are only prepared to comment anonymously (which I have never encountered before – usually they are very chatty). As narratives around personal responsibility intensify, the orthodoxy has become quite fixed: if we all need to do everything we can to minimise contact and risk, how does a pub fit into that? But it does not mean people stop going. It just means we are all really quiet about it.
Part of the publicans’ reticence, according to Joseph (not his real name), who runs a pub in central London, is the brutal precariousness. “It’s shit, it’s really shit. We’re not making any money or taking any money. We’re just about making enough to pay everybody.” In July, according to a different YouGov poll, 49% of people said they still felt very uncomfortable going out drinking. That eased up in August, but that is a quiet pub-month anyway.
Outside London, though, businesses are recovering, according to the Centre for Cities, even where capacity has dropped as social distancing rules strip out half the tables. Borg-Neal was on the working party for the trade association UK Hospitality, figuring out the guidelines with government, which landed on England’s one-metre rather than two-metre rule: “Quite simply, we challenged the evidence, also pointing out that nowhere would be viable. You could mitigate risk in other ways, using glass screens, thinking about the layout. One metre back to back is fine.”
There is quite a framework of rules, but it looks different in every pub: so some will be covered in yellow tape like a crime scene, to enforce a one-way system, in others you won’t notice any difference, except that you can see more of the floor. You have to register your details, which are held for 21 days, you might have to book or order with an app, and perhaps all this explains why there appears to have been no spike in infections associated with the reopening of pubs. In a normal world, that might take some of the heat out of the discussion.
Predictably, none of the external wrangling is playing out within the walls of the cathedrals themselves. “In terms of a massive political divide,” Joseph continues, “I’m not seeing it in the real world. Almost everybody who’s decided to go to a pub has made the decision that they’re prepared to take the risk before they walk in. Everybody has respected our business, or respected our rules.”
There is a (granted, anecdotal) distinction here between the pub and the restaurant industry, where some are complaining that customers became much ruder during eat out to help out. Sarah, a supervisor at a London hotel restaurant, described people “shouting across the room”, more impatient, less likely to tip. In pubs, the main difference I have noticed is that bar staff are constantly having to say “no” to things: no, you can’t stand up; no, there’s no room at the bar; no, you can’t talk to the people on that other table.
People take the piss a bit. Joseph says: “Somebody phones up and says: ‘I want a table for 12.’ We say: ‘You can’t have a table for 12,’ and the next thing you know, you’ve got two tables of six and they’re all mates. There’s not a lot we can do. We’re not the police.” Generally, punters don’t seem to mind the differences, but at the end of the night, the staff look exhausted. If you were the kind of person who enjoyed saying “no”, you would work in a bank.
Relations between the government and the industry have improved. Borg-Neal says: “The big positive for us is that the government has at long last realised that we make a major contribution.” That is a rare moment of harmony, but would obviously sharpen criticism that the economy is being put before public health. Thus the pub becomes a gateway to a wider, also fiercely contested conversation, about the nation’s wellbeing both related to and beyond Covid, and how much economic damage it can weather.
The reason none of this resolves easily, and the reason the boozer has become the flashpoint, is because of the fundamental question at its heart: what business does anyone have enjoying themselves at a time like this? Economists might try to come up with an answer, or at least a balance of interests. But really, it is something only a poet could explain.