Due to the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout – which at the time of writing has seen more than 5m people fully inoculated and more than 31m people receive their first jab – Prime Minister Boris Johnson proclaimed he would be going to the pub and “and cautiously but irreversibly, raising a pint of beer” to his lips on Monday 12 April.
Yet despite this, the trade remains sceptical of his drinking technique, whether he’ll be able to find a publican willing to sell him a first post-lockdown pint, and if measures outlined in his latest press conference on Monday 5 April will benefit pubs in the long run.
Crucially, while Johnson said the second step of the roadmap could go ahead without mandatory Covid-status certification for pubgoers at the next two steps, he outlined expanded Test & Trace responsibilities for publicans – who now need to ensure that every member of a visiting party provides contact details rather than just the lead booker.
“The most important thing to say is there is absolutely no question of people being asked to produce certification or Covid-status report when they go to the shops to the pub garden or to the hairdressers on Monday (12 April) and indeed we are not planning that for step three either Monday 17 May (opening indoor hospitality),” he explained.
While Emma McClarkin, chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, welcomed confirmation that an estimated 40% of pubs – some 15,000 in England – will resume outdoor trading on Monday 12 April, she expressed reservations over ongoing measures.
“We continue to have deep concerns over the Governments proposals around vaccine passports and changes to guidelines on how pubs will operate once they reopen,” she said.
“Not allowing customers to pay at the bar for food or drink in pubs, but allowing it in cafés or shops, is completely unfair and illogical.”
According to a survey of 700 businesses in the Night-Time Economy by the Night-time Industries Association, 70% of firms feel that the Covid Status Certification, negative testing or immunity proof are not necessary to open their premises safely, while 69% feel it would have a negative impact on business.
As such, British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) chief executive Steven Alton welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that they would not be needed when pubs resume indoor and outdoor trading on Monday 12 April and Monday 17 May respectively.
“It is positive news the Prime Minister has now confirmed that vaccine passports are not required for pubs as they reopen,” he said.
“We will continue to push the Government for our members not to be subject to any further barriers to trading and free of all restrictions from Monday 21 June, in line with the roadmap.
“Any further conditions beyond the delivery of the key health measures are unfounded and discriminatory.”
What’s more, Peter Collie, who runs London pub pair the Horseshoe Inn in London Bridge and the Prince of Wales in Paddington, believes the Government closed the book on vaccine passports for “very good reasons”.
“Pubs by nature are non-discriminatory, a vaccine passport to enter is not something I would be happy about,” he added.
Collie added that he believes the implementation of a vaccine passport policy would be “impossible” to enforce – a stance shared by Greene King CEO Nick Mackenzie, who was recently named Business Leader of the Year at the 2021 Publican Awards.
“While a vaccine passport system may be appropriate for international travel and large-scale events where large numbers of people are travelling from different regions, it would be devastating for pubs who serve their local communities,” the pubco boss explained.
“It’s unfair to expect pub teams to police this as well as dealing with any fallout and it would have a huge impact on our people who just want to get back to serving customers.
“It would also add significant costs at exactly the time the industry is planning to rebuild itself so it’s vital the Government sticks to its timetable with a full, unrestricted reopening from Monday 21 June.”
Piers Baker, who operates Essex pubs the Sun Inn in Dedham and the Church Street Tavern in Colchester, describes the issue of vaccine passports as “a bit of a minefield” and believes the logistics would be “difficult”.
“Previously, a lot of people didn't have the NHS app, so a lot of time was taken up showing them how to download it and explain things. I can see this happening again,” he explained.
“For those exempt from having a passport, again, there will be debates around them having to prove this for us to comply. I believe similar things are used in the Far East so if they are going to be used to open things up as much as possible here, it needs to be seamless and easy for everyone because our businesses cannot afford the extra layer of bureaucracy or reasons for customers not to visit.”
Can kicked down the roadmap?
However, despite widespread positivity over the Prime Minister supposedly stamping out vaccine passports for pubs in the short term, Licensees Association chief executive Nick Griffin, believes Johnson has left himself enough “wriggle room” to introduce Covid-status certification “further down the lockdown road” – potentially when England's legal limits on social contact end on 21 June.
“Love it or hate it, it’s a possibility,” he explained.
What’s more, speaking to The Morning Advertiser in February, Gusto Pronto's Roxane Marjoram, who owns and operates a handful of pubs (two leasehold, three freehold) and a brewery with husband David, reflected that the Covid crisis has engulfed the pub sector for so long that it’s easy to lose track of all the “nuances and changes”.
Like Griffin, she harbours concerns that vaccine passports could land further down the line.
“Although Johnson ruled out vaccine passports from the initial reopening phases, it does appear they may become a requirement as a trade-off for the removal of social distancing requirements from Monday 21 June,” she said.
Griffin added that such a “trade off” could disproportionately harm smaller venues who would be less able to implement social distancing and remain profitable than larger food-led sites – and therefore more likely to be forced to adopt passports.
“In the short term I feel it is likely the Government will be considering some form of trade-off when all have had the vaccination opportunity,” Griffin explained. “Either we continue with social distancing measures, no bar service etc or we introduce some form of Covid-status report, let’s call it a passport.
“If there is a stark choice of passport or social distancing – and I hope there’s not but I fear it will be the case as matters evolve – then to ensure many of our smaller wet led pubs have the ability to trade profitably, passports may offer the peace of mind to allow for less restrictions in venues and could be the lifeline that these smaller venues so desperately need.”
As reported by Channel 4 News, Johnson has been accused of reneging on his promise of a “one way road to freedom” by a group of Conservative backbenchers after trials of Covid-status certificates for large-scale events were slated in England this month.
‘Truly disappointed’ by Test & Trace
While appearing to turn the page on vaccine passports, Johnson stipulated that all reopened hospitality venues in England will be legally required to display an official NHS QR code poster and check-in every member of a visiting party as opposed to just the lead booker – as was the case in summer 2020.
Dan Brookman, CEO of hospitality tech platform Airship – whose Test and Trace solution Trck.to was live in 11,000 locations and checked in 23m guests – declared himself “truly disappointed” by the return of mandatory requirements.
“The sector poured its collective heart into reopening in July 2020 and complied with Government regulation and guidance to create some of the safest spaces to socialise in the UK,” he said.
“The requirement for operators to record customers’ details was comprehensively adhered to throughout the sector, via paper and pen, WiFi, pre-booking and QR solutions.”
Additionally, publican Gav Young of the Plough and Barleycorn on the Isle of Wight, lamented the fact that more people were now being forced to use an expensive system he believes has been a “disaster” and that, once again, venues such as his were being singled out as “villainous”.
“Only in hospitality do we have to refuse entry to those who don’t check in,” he explained. “Fail to check in at the local cinema and they will ‘strongly encourage’ you to, the same at a sports stadium. But a pub or restaurant must refuse you entry if you fail to check in.
“If you were in any doubt as to how the Government view hospitality, then it is laid clear in the cautionary note on dealing with customers who become ‘unruly’ (they only do that in hospitality settings) and the need to call the police if you feel unsafe.
“The inclusion of this paragraph is a frank admission that once again the Government are putting hostility at the forefront of hospitality.”
Test & Trace ‘not going to work’
According to Gusto Pronto boss Marjoram, while she believes sufficient notice has been given to operators to prepare for expanded Test & Trace requirements before they an reopen outdoor spaces on Monday 12 April and resume indoor trading on Monday 17 May, she anticipates bottlenecks in her bars as a consequence.
“As far as Test & Trace goes, we had a little more notice on that and are in the process of updating our websites and reopening information to let customers know that everyone will need to be recorded for Test & Trace rather than one person in a group,” she says. “Inevitably, it will take longer to record this information on arrival.
“So the challenge for us will be communicating this to customers – who may not be aware of the new requirement – while ensuring that every customer experience with us is of great hospitality rather than a series of procedures that have to be gone through in order to get a drink or a meal.”
Publican Peter Collie is, however, far less optimistic in his assessment.
“This is not going to work,” he says of requirements to gather contact details for all group members rather than simply the lead booker. “Unfortunately, we have people in Government and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) who have no idea on how hospitality works.
“People were happy to sign in for themselves and others – it would be impossible to sign everyone in. It now seems this is less about saving lives and the NHS and more about MPs trying to hang onto their jobs.”
‘Fairly unique opportunity’
Yet, despite expressing disappointment at the return of mandatory – and expanded – Test & Trace stipulations, Brookman outlines that the regulations could present an opportunity for operators to grow databases that have been decimated over the last 12 months.
“There is nothing stopping operators from including a marketing/communications opt-in as customers check-in,” Brookman explained. “This needs to be affirmative consent, so cannot be a pre-ticked box, to comply with GDPR.
“Not only will this help to build databases to allow for better engagement with customers, but it also provides businesses with a fairly unique opportunity to identify their most loyal customers – those who have chosen to visit your venue as a priority after a year of disruption and closures.
“Last year, we saw an average overall opt-in rate of 26% through Trck.to, and this figure increased significantly for casual dining and pubs. One of our clients found that a staggering 41% of customer data was recorded compliantly as a result of track and trace, against a pre-lockdown rate of 1.5%.
“We'd recommend that operators nail down their engagement campaign now to make the most of this period,” he continued. “The guidance is set to last to September and although we expect the summer to be a blinder for trade, there may be a dip to come in autumn, when it will be necessary to lean on your database for customer engagement.”
‘Customers have had enough’
While Brookman suggests that customers have been receptive to opt-in to pub communications while checking in, Luke Champion, co-owner of Hollybush and the Horseshoes in Witney, Oxfordshire, believes they’ve grown apathetic towards restrictions in general.
“We feel like customers have had enough of all this now,” he explained.
“When they come to visit us they feel safe and we hope they know we’re doing everything we can to make people feel safe.
“When people go out, they just want to forget about all the restrictions and rules and having to show a vaccine passport wouldn’t be popular.
What’s more, commentators such as the Licensees Association’s Nick Griffin and Mark Flanagan, CEO of Shield Safety Group and chairman of the UK Safe to Trade Scheme, have grown similarly sceptical over the conversation around vaccine passports.
“I suspect this is one huge distraction,” Griffin tells The MA. “We really should be discussing the very real issues of unpaid rent, how we overcome this and how we move forward in a fair and equitable way that doesn’t result in more businesses going to the wall, more publicans livelihoods being lost and more community assets gone for good.”
Flanagan concurs that after a long hard winter that has seen pubs doors remain firmly shut, vaccine passports for pubs isn’t the debate we should be having right now.
“Rather than focus on creating further inequitable, barriers to entry, with less than a couple of weeks until doors reopen, now should be a time to support the most British of institutions and for industry and Government to come together to consider more well thought through ways to help pubs to get back on their feet again,” he said.