Scenes of Soho pubgoers standing in compact crowds and clearly not at least one metre apart from other groups were shared on social media and picked up in the national press following ‘super Saturday’ when pubs reopened on 4 July.
While many publicans have reported calm and controlled customer behaviour to The Morning Advertiser (MA), operators are still adjusting to a new normal and some have been criticised for the crowds outside their premises.
Pubs cannot ask the police to step in unless situations get out of control and must instead focus on their risk assessments and collaboration with other authorities to prevent overcrowding outside venues, Poppleston Allen partner Andy Grimsey told MA.
Guidance not law
The National Police Chiefs’ Council confirmed that as social distancing is guidance, not a law, the police have no involvement.
Grimsey said: “Defining where the responsibility lies for maintaining social distancing beyond the demise of the premises and into previously unused public spaces is multi-faceted and dependent on the circumstances."
"Certainly, there is primarily individual responsibility given that we are all trying to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus and we have guidance on social bubbles and general social distancing principles we should all adhere to.
"Pubs and bars clearly have a part to play, and the guidance issued by the government highlights areas where they can. Pubs are bars have invested in new systems and have modified the customer experience so as to promote social distancing to aid compliance."
He added: "Under licensing laws pubs and bars are responsible for managing customer behaviour on their own property, including outside areas in their control, and consequences flow if there are failures that result in crime or anti-social behaviour - but it seems to me this is a situation where generally the language is to encourage and persuade, rather than try and rule with an iron fist."
Pubs have been able to take advantage of changes to so-called ‘table and chairs’ pavement licences as well as many authorities choosing to pedestrianise roads surrounded by pubs and bars.
Grimsey added: "Responsibility does not however lie with one person or business alone. There is a triangle of responsibility of the operators, public and enforcers. We also have new public spaces in use and everyone is on a steep learning curve in this new world."
Grimsey pointed to existing licensing laws and said authorities would get involved if there were situations of disorder where it was evident that pubs had been irresponsible with serving customers too much alcohol.
He added: "Anecdotal evidence suggests that last weekend, apart from a few exceptions, went smoothly both for operators and enforcing authorities, who took a pragmatic and supportive view given how new (indeed rushed) some of this law and guidance has been."
Pubs have already been using one-way systems, fencing off areas, and implementing signage outside their venues in a bid to reduce congestion or people standing too close together.
Councillor Katrina Wood, vice chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said councils and pubs had been working together closely to ensure safety.
She said: “Councils want everyone to stay safe while enjoying shopping and socialising in villages, towns and city centres, and have been implementing changes to the public realm including temporary road closures, pedestrianising streets and providing signage to support social distancing.
“Ultimately, it is up to individuals and businesses to make sure they act responsibly and safely, including maintaining social distancing."
It comes after a coalition of trade bodies, UKHospitality (UKH), the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) wrote to the LGA outlining reports of councils "issuing their own interpretations of how the guidance should be applied on a blanket basis".
Steven Alton, BII chief executive added: "There are a vast range of options available for managing customer numbers; from allowing website, telephone and app bookings only, to additional staff serving directly to tables and one-way systems in place to avoid contact as much as possible.
"Consumers must be responsible for their own behaviours, especially when it comes to distancing in and around pubs, but some innovative licensees have put in place pavement stickers and more friendly queue markers such as planters, to help those in queues be aware of their distance.
“Everyone will have had challenges for reopening safely and distancing is just one aspect of that. We are confident that as our industry continues to come to life, that we can continue to work together to keep our teams and customers safe.”