Drinking pubs ‘hung out to dry’ as tier 2 restrictions imposed in Suffolk and Essex

Helen and Ivan Sheldrake, whose Stowmarket wet-led pub won't be able to open under tier 2 Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

Helen and Ivan Sheldrake, whose Stowmarket wet-led pub won't be able to open under tier 2 Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE - Credit: Archant

The landlady of a wet-led pub described the government decision not to allow non-food hostelries in Suffolk to open post-lockdown as “galling” as she kept her fingers crossed that the county will come out of tier 2 pandemic restrictions in two weeks’ time.

Beers lined up at the Walnut pub Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE

Beers lined up at the Walnut pub Picture: HELEN SHELDRAKE - Credit: Archant

“I do feel that the wet-led industry has been hung out to dry,” admitted Helen Sheldrake of The Walnut in Stowmarket.

She and husband Ivan took on the pub a year and a half ago and were keen for it to be a neighbourhood hub with an emphasis on good beers and ales.

There was disappointment all around as Suffolk and Essex failed to make it into the less restrictive tier 1 category when health secretary Matt Hancock announced the new measures.

MORE — ‘I’ve had plenty of people telling me it won’t work’ says licensee at launch of ‘beer pub’It means some businesses across the counties have been left hanging by a thread as they prepare to enter tier 2 restrictions when lockdown ends.

As a ban on households mixing indoors, pubs and restaurants will only able to operate under tight conditions, and sell alcohol with a “substantial meal” — others will be forced to close.

Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly made it onto the tier 1 list, with the rest of England falling into either tier 2 or 3.

But non-essential retail, gyms and personal care can reopen, as can the wider leisure and entertainment sectors — although to varying degrees.

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When the Sheldrakes’ pub did reopen after the last lockdown, they invested in a marquee and implemented strict hygiene measures. Many of their regulars come in on their own anyway, said Mrs Sheldrake.

“I don’t think we are the main conduit of the virus,” she said. “If you come into my pub you have to sanitise your hands on entry.

“Other industries which have the same level of risk as a pub have been treated differently and that’s what’s unfair. Why are gyms allowed to open?”

But furlough and some of the grant support has been a huge help to the business. It’s meant that her five staff — including two on maternity leave — have been able to be compensated, she said.

While forced to close, the pub has also been providing an off-licence service which has helped to keep the business ticking along.

But Mrs Sheldrake also felt sorry for the meal-led pubs which can open under the restrictions. “They are only guidelines and they are vague, and it’s a minefield in whatever tier you are in,” she said. “We are hoping the review in two weeks we’ll go down to tier 1 — that’s our main hope.”

Frances Brace of East Anglia-based Red Flame PR argued the decision-making process wasn’t evidence-based or consistent.

“Those juxtapositions make it look a simple choice. It’s not. You are not protecting everyone if you are destroying the economy and making people jobless,” she said.

“The long term harms are the most crucial part of the equation. Additionally, if that were the balance the government is trying to achieve, the decisions would be based on evidence, and would be applied consistently across sectors and industries. This is not the case at the moment.”

Paul Nunny of cask ale accreditation body Cask Marque said the government had “heavily penalised” pubs.

“Wet led pubs in these tiers have to remain closed and pubs in tier 2 can only open if they behave like a restaurant. How will these pubs survive?

“Hospitality is the third largest sector of employment in the UK and a large percentage of employees are under 25, the youth of today.

“Only 1% of cases of covid infection relate to pubs. Why are they being singled out? It seems they are using pubs to deliver the message that life is not back to normal even though pubs have spent millions of pounds on ensuring their customer will be safe.

“Why penalise the pub when it does not benefit society?”

Richard Tunnicliffe, CBI regional director for the East of England, said many businesses in the region would feel like they are in suspended animation.

“Some parts of the economy, such as retail, can begin to re-open and look towards a recovery. It gives our high streets a chance to rescue some of the vital festive trading period,” he said.

But he added: “But for other businesses the ongoing restrictions in tiers 2 and 3 will leave their survival hanging by a thread. Hospitality will remain frozen. And supply chains that cross regions in different tiers will be hit even if they don’t face direct restrictions.

“It’s vital that these firms receive the financial support they need to make it through to the Spring. Clarity about ongoing employment support, including the Job Retention Bonus, will help protect as many jobs as possible. Businesses need to know what support will be there through to March and beyond in advance, rather than taking it down to the wire.

Paul Simon of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce said: “Being placed in tier 2 was what most Suffolk businesses were probably expecting. This does represent progress on the national lockdown situation for many businesses in the hospitality, retail, leisure and personal care sectors. But we seem to be many months away from a return to full-on trading conditions.

“The focus must now be on a comprehensive rapid turnaround test and tracing system and vaccine rollout. Suffolk’s industrious and imaginative businesses, which have been so agile in adapting to the constantly changing restrictions over the last nine months or so, deserve good Government planning and effective delivery to help them manage themselves out of the current situation. Westminster and Whitehall must now step up.”

David Burch, director of policy at Essex Chambers of Commerce said they were “naturally disappointed” for businesses in Essex that the government had placed the county in tier 2.

“Ever since the start of the pandemic businesses have complied with government regulations and done all they can to protect their customers, staff and residents in Essex,” he said.

“The continuing restrictions on the hospitality sector are particularly disappointing as many pubs are at the heart of their town centres and local communities. In the coming weeks as we approach Christmas we would encourage people to think about supporting their local retailers and other businesses first”.

“We hope that when the tiers are reviewed that Essex will be moved into Tier 1 but in the meantime any businesses requiring support should look at our website along with those of their local council where information on available support can be found.”