Operators said they felt the region had been disproportionately targeted by regional policies in the easing of past lockdowns and called for more sector-support to aid their businesses’ recovery.
The region was among the first areas to be subjected to tighter measures on trade last year, including a ban on household mixing indoors, a strict curfew and meal requirements for serving alcohol.
“We have had the toughest measures in the whole of the UK. It has been really difficult for the city region,” explained night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester and operator Sacha Lord.
“Out of the 10 boroughs, I worry the most about how the city centre is going to recover,” he added.
Manchester’s city centre has been severely hit by pandemic-related lifestyle changes such as a move to working-from-home rather than in offices, a dip in student trade and consumers wanting to stay closer to home, Lord said.
The night-time adviser is pursuing a legal challenge over restrictions on wet pubs last year and has called the former tier system an “attack on class culture.”
Many operators are worried about rumours that the Government may suggest pubs can only reopen outdoors this spring, with figures from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) stating just 40% would be able to reopen.
Mental health concerns
The vast majority of wet-led pubs in Greater Manchester pubs are in the area’s most deprived areas, Lord said, with many tagged onto the end of terraced streets without large beer gardens.
If they go down the route of only allowing pubs to reopen with outdoor spaces, it is yet another attack on class culture.— Sacha Lord (@Sacha_Lord) February 16, 2021
The vast majority of community pubs do not have pretty beer gardens, with Foie Gras on the menu.
“These pubs serve more than a pint, they serve the community. We need to support the mental health of the lowest paid, they’re had it tougher than everybody else,” Lord said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to set out his plan for easing lockdown rules on Monday 22 February, although it is not yet known how much detail will be given on hospitality’s reopening date and measures.
“I am absolutely adamant that hospitality, with correct measures in place, should open exactly at the same time as non-essential retail, Lord added, in response to speculation shops could reopen a month ahead of pubs.
One of the pubs hit by a drop in city centre trade is the Altas Bar, situated near Deansgate station.
Elaine Wrigley is the joint managing director and said her bar was not eligible for a grant in the first lockdown owing to its rateable value, exacerbating the pain of a year mostly closed.
While the bar had always done well from a “laptop brigade” of office workers and students, this trade did not return after the first lockdown, Wrigley explained.
Of the upcoming announcement, she said: “We’re looking out for some clarity, what the triggers will be for the stages of that roadmap. We understand the Government is unlikely to give absolute dates but we need to know what will trigger the decision making.”
The trade has been “pilloried” and the victim of “poor decision making,” Wrigley said, pointing to the 10pm curfew as a measure that made customers feel unsafe.
What’s more, the Government must increase support for businesses, with support covering companies’ profits as in France and Germany, the licensee added.
For many operators, including Wrigley, the 3 March Budget was a far more important date than the release of the roadmap next week. The policies set out by Chancellor Rishi Sunak - including a verdict on extending business rates relief and a reduced VAT rate - will signal make or break for many businesses.
From the roadmap, Wrigley would like to see a “consistent approach across the country,” and recalled a moment last autumn where Greater Manchester was plunged into additional restrictions ahead of London, despite the capital reporting worse virus numbers.
Operator Ian Mitty is reluctant to return to a regional system and said in his experience some customers are keen to “go around” rather than accept rules, by travelling to different areas.
His “Christmas card-like” village pub the Holts Arms in Billinge, Wigan, has been closed since early November, meaning the site could be closed for some six months before it is allowed to trade again.
Clear and simple
He would rather see a longer closure period with bolstered support rather than reopening with heavy trading constraints – something like the rules in July 2020 would not be ideal but liveable, he said.
"The trade is about being hospitable, welcoming people in, making sure they're comfortable and being friendly," the licensee added. The pub has not felt like a pub with staff keen to ensure customers are sticking to pandemic rules, he explained.
“We were losing more money open than we were closed,” Mitty said of the tiered system of rules in place last year.
Regional rules do not work, Mitty said. His pub is situated on the border of three different councils which meant pubgoers would travel to wherever they would be allowed to drink.
The licensee hopes to see a “clear and simple” system in the roadmap, with “national rules that everyone understands.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already indicated there will be a national approach rather than a series of local lockdowns or tiers.
He put this down to a new South African variant of coronavirus acting as a “pretty national phenomenon.”