Pubs push back at 10pm curfew

Hospitality sector question the scientific logic behind the rule and its effectiveness in containing the pandemic 

Over the past six months, Britain's pubs and restaurants have been upended by the pandemic and the seemingly endless slew of tough rules enforced on them by the Government.

The closure of hospitality outlets for almost four months in lockdown effectively wiped out sales, while social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning requirements have piled further pressure and costs on an industry already on its knees.

But none of these rules and restrictions have managed to cause as much widespread consternation and confusion as the Prime Minister's curfew.

Boris Johnson imposed a 10pm closing time on all hospitality outlets from September 24 as part of a new set of restrictions to try to limit the spread of coronavirus, sparking outcry among the industry's struggling businesses.

It has also raised questions over the scientific logic behind the curfew and its effectiveness in containing the outbreak. 

Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, has called the curfew “utterly stupid” and believes the only scientifically proven course of action in limiting outbreaks are social distancing and regular hand washing. "Other jargon-filled government initiatives such as the rule of six, circuit-breakers, curfews and lockdowns are doomed to fail," he says.

Operators argue that the curfew "does the opposite of protecting people" as it forces groups out of venues at the same time, leading to overcrowding on streets and public transport.

Wetherspoons said last month that 800 of its 861 pubs have had no infections since reopening in July, while a further 40 have had one infection.

At rival Greene King, fewer than 1pc of its sites have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace during the same period. Marston's has recorded just "a handful" of its 1,400 pubs which have been linked to cases.

Operators also point to recent Public Health England figures which show just 4c of all outbreaks are linked to hospitality outlets, compared with 38pc in schools and universities and 26pc in the workplace.

"It's easy for government and academics to point the finger at hospitality and to be seen to be doing something, even if what that something is has got questionable benefit," says Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston's.

This growing frustration has spurred firms to take matters into their own hands, with the owner of London's G-A-Y nightclub planning to pursue a potential judicial review of the curfew.

Greg Clark, the former business secretary and chairman of parliament’s science and technology committee, has demanded that the health secretary Matt Hancock provide pubs and restaurants with "transparency" and provide evidence regarding how the curfews have an impact on virus transmission.

People enter Oxford Circus underground station in London after the 10pm curfew Credit:  Kirsty O'Connor/PA

But some academics believe that the curfew is a reasonable middle ground as the UK battles a second wave.

Aberdeen University's Professor Hugh Pennington, who linked an outbreak in the Scottish city to transmission among drinkers, called the curfew a “compromise” between doing nothing and a nationwide lockdown. 

“If you limit the amount of trade that a pub is doing rather than closing them all together, you would hope that will help to reduce transmission,” he says. “Of course, I suppose you could say, the more drunk somebody gets the less likely they are to do social distancing.”

Some critics have linked the recent spike in cases to the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered diners 50pc off their food bill from Monday to Wednesday during August. Detractors claim that the incentive encouraged revellers to pile into pubs and restaurants en-masse, potentially contributing to the rapid acceleration in cases.

According to official data, no marked upswing in cases was recorded in July when restaurants reopened, or in August when the Chancellor’s discount scheme was launched.

Will Beckett, owner of steak restaurant Hawksmoor, says the government’s approach to containing the virus should be more targeted, rather than using the blunt instrument of a nationwide curfew.

“The choice is clear; is the preference for people to socialise in regulated, Covid-secure spaces where abiding by the rules is a condition of entry, or in private unregulated spaces where checks on adherence are impossible?” he says.

“In providing those safe and regulated spaces, hospitality is a crucial ally in fighting Covid-19, as well as playing a vital role in the economy, jobs, communities and the mental health and happiness of the nation.”

Some of the Prime Minister’s own advisers have raised questions over the scientific evidence related to the curfew. Professor Graham Medley, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee, has revealed that the committee never discussed the impact earlier closing times for hospitality would have on infection rates.

Meanwhile, Professor John Edmunds, also a member of the Sage committee, has called the curfew “fairly trivial”, warning it would have a “very small impact on the epidemic”.

For hospitality, growing discontent with the rules among rebel Conservative MPs provide some hope that the Prime Minister’s curfew could soon be quashed. 

MPs on both sides of the house had been set to vote on the measure on Wednesday night but it has now been delayed to a later date, with rebel MPs who planned to oppose the curfew accusing the Government of “running scared”.

Wetherspoon’s Martin is still holding out hope: “Let’s hope MPs consign Boris Johnson’s surreal moonshots and vain attempts to defeat the virus to the dustbin.”