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‘We’re in the hands of the unknown’ - landlords fear 2020 washout for pub industry

PUBLISHED: 08:49 02 May 2020 | UPDATED: 08:49 02 May 2020

Colin Keatley, owner of The Fat Cat, The Fat Cat & Canary and The Fat Cat Brewery Tap, all in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Archant

Colin Keatley, owner of The Fat Cat, The Fat Cat & Canary and The Fat Cat Brewery Tap, all in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Archant

Archant Norfolk 2015

Norwich’s pub landlords fear 2020 could be a write-off for the industry, as they prepare for revised rules on social distancing to be revealed.

Phil Cutter, landlord of the Murderers on Timber Hill, Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Denise BradleyPhil Cutter, landlord of the Murderers on Timber Hill, Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Denise Bradley

Almost six weeks after the UK went into lockdown, prime minister Boris Johnson has promised to announce plans for the easing of restrictions in the coming days.

High on the list of questions is what that will mean for pubs, many of which face uncertain futures following an unprecedented period of closure.

Tim Martin, founder of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, says he intends to reopen bars and hotels in June, hoping to benefit from having typically larger premises if social distancing measures remain in place.

But how feasible is such a move for Norfolk’s hundreds of independent watering holes? And do landlords actually think they will be permitted to reopen anytime soon?

Phil Cutter, landlord at The Murderers on Timber Hill, believes the Wetherspoon boss’ aim of resuming normal service next month is lofty, insisting an autumn return is more likely.

“How long this goes on for remains to be seen,” he said. “Tim Martin is preparing to open businesses in June, but I think that’s wildly optimistic - I don’t think that will happen.

Colin Keatley, owner of The Fat Cat, The Fat Cat & Canary and The Fat Cat Brewery Tap, all in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: ArchantColin Keatley, owner of The Fat Cat, The Fat Cat & Canary and The Fat Cat Brewery Tap, all in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Archant

“Pubs might open in September/October, but that will be with social distancing.”

MORE: ‘They’ve got pound signs in their eyeballs’ - CAMRA boss on Wetherspoons ‘June re-opening’

But operating with distancing measures in place will, according to Mr Cutter, present a whole host of challenges that may render reopening an unwelcome headache.

With extra staff required to ensure customers wash their hands and limit the number of people entering toilets, he says staying shut until next year may be the safest option.

“Reopening in autumn is debatable,” added Mr Cutter. “We may be allowed to reopen before Christmas but with social distancing it’s going to be really difficult.

“Most pubs are hoping to open sooner rather than later, but the general consensus is that we don’t want to reopen only to have to close again.

Craig Maskell, general manager of the Artichoke pub in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Neil DidsburyCraig Maskell, general manager of the Artichoke pub in Norwich, has given his take on the pub industry's prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Neil Didsbury

“We would rather be shut until next year and know we’re opening in a position were we can let people in as normal.”

Colin Keatley, owner of three pubs across Norwich - The Fat Cat, The Fat Cat & Canary and The Fat Cat Brewery Tap - said one of the hardest parts of the situation has been lingering uncertainty.

He questioned whether punters will flock straight back to pub, even once restrictions are lifted.

“We’re really in the hands of the unknown,” added Mr Keatley, who is running a takeaway beer service from his premises. “I think this is potentially going to have a little bit of an impact on the future.

“People haven’t been out drinking for three months, so will they go back to drinking again?

“Norwich has a lot of good pubs with a good range of products across the board, but the public haven’t been allowed to go to pubs for three months and they might change.”

As expected, pub beer sales across the nation have declined significantly since the coronavirus crisis began, collapsing by 40pc in March compared to the same period in 2019.

The prime minister first advised the public to avoid pubs on March 16, before ordering them to close completely just four days later.

The British Beer and Pub Association says the “cliff-edge impact” has been “devastating” for the sector, asserting that 10,000 pubs have not been offered government support due to having a rateable value above the threshold of £51,000.

While some publicans remain hopeful of reopening during the summer, Craig Maskell, general manager of the Artichoke pub on Magdalen Road, says the only sensible practice was to await government guidance.

“The situation is up in the air and it is such a grey area,” said Mr Maskell. “We will take our advice from the government and dance to their tune, although it is impossible to say what measures may be put in place.

“I expect pubs to reopen in September and October and definitely think hospitality will be the last industry to reopen.”

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