Rejoice! In England, the pubs are opening. But what about Scotland and Wales?

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BY MO METCALF-FISHER

In the early days of lockdown, I wrote an article for this website about the importance of supporting pubs. In that piece, I made clear that pubs are not only an essential economic contributor but serve an important role in the fight against social isolation.

Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister, which will see pubs in England able to open from the start of the July 4th weekend, will be music to the ears of so many people, but none more so than the publicans who have been hit hard by the lockdown.

Like the rest of the nation, I cannot wait to get to my local to see off a drink in celebration.

At the Countryside Alliance, we carried out surveys of our extensive network of rural pubs to assess what action -if any- they were taking ahead of yesterday’s announcement. It was clear from many publicans that reopening while maintaining 2m social distancing on site would prove incredibly difficult. As ever, the devil will be in the detail and pubs will be working round the clock to ensure their customers & staff are safe.

A further testament of their dedication to serving their local community – even when faced by a pandemic – was displayed by the fact that just over half of those rural pubs polled from our network, have adapted to guidance and have continued operating either partially or fully as local community shops. It is worth noting that in very rural areas, pubs can often be one of – if not the only hub – for miles around, so not adapting to serve as a shop, could have proved very difficult for those seeking basic goods without access to transport.

Ideally, pub gardens would have been opened up earlier, so as provide rural communities with some reward for the understandably large number of visitors coming to the countryside after the initial lockdown easing. However, the British Government must be praised for demonstrating their appreciation of the role pubs play and thanked for allowing them the flexibility to remain open as a take-away and delivery service, as well as their generous business grants that stopped many pubs from going under at the start of lockdown.

Sadly, yesterday’s joyous news was not extended to our neighbours in Scotland and Wales, who remain in limbo. It was clear from our correspondence with publicans in both nations, that frustrations at both devolved governments is growing. We now find ourselves in a position from July 4th that Welsh people living on the English border, will be able to go across to England for a pint & some food. At what cost to the Welsh economy?

The First Minister for Wales, Mark Drakeford, continues even now to insist on limiting travel for leisure purposes to five miles from the home. It might not make a huge impact to those living in Cardiff or Swansea, as they can access friends, golf clubs, garden centres and all the other facilities you want to access within a five-mile radius. Wales, however, has a significant rural population for whom a five-mile drive might not get them to their nearest neighbourhood, let alone the nearest town. When challenged, Drakeford continues to backtrack and maintains this is “just” guidance. It begs the question: why issue guidance that is so obviously inimical to a part of your population unless you just don’t consider the needs and challenges of those communities?

Similar concerns were echoed in the House of Commons chamber yesterday by John Lamont, MP for the Borders, who urged the Prime Minister to agree that the First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, should share the evidence to justify why Scotland has taken a different approach from the rest of the United Kingdom.  

The SNP has not shown the same commitment to Scottish hospitality businesses during COVID-19. The popular and excellent Edinburgh French bistro, Chez Jules,  making it known that it had received no government support. It will not be the only one. To add insult to injury the SNP Administration has remained vague on when hospitality businesses will reopen and under what conditions they will be allowed to operate on. There have been reports already of stock being wasted because of unclear messages of when pubs could reopen, now proposed to be on 6th July, yet with the restrictive 2m rule remaining. There is a review on the social distancing rules underway, but it is unclear why that review could not have happened before, indeed in preparation of, easing lockdown. It seems the Scottish hospitality sector must keep waiting for the SNP to make the hard decisions it criticised the UK Government for making when it changed the message from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’. The SNP’s ‘stay safe’ is hardly a divergence.

As we go forward, it falls to organisations like the Countryside Alliance, as well as others with a duty of defending communities likely to be damaged by discriminatory guidance, to lobby for the sensible reopening of the economy.

In England, we must not take our eye off of councillors and local authorities set on pumping out anti-visitor rhetoric at a time when their already fragile local businesses are in desperate need of a cash injection from tourists.

Slowly, but surely, we are getting the country moving again and this important next phase will require us all to do our part in boosting the economy.

Mo Metcalf-Fisher is a political commentator and spokesman for the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter: @mometfisher


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