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Although it now seems only a distant memory, yesterday marked five weeks since pubs, bars and restaurants were instructed to close due to the cornonavirus crisis. However, over a month in, thoughts are now turning to the process for relaxing the lockdown. In a possibly unguarded moment, government minister Michael Gove stated that he couldn’t rule out pubs not being allowed to reopen until Christmas, although neither did he say this was likely.
However, this was seized on in the ex-newspaper known as the Independent, where one Jane Fae stated that she wouldn’t be too upset if Gove’s speculation came to pass. Reading the piece in more detail, though, it seems that this has a great deal to do with her own “long and difficult relationship” with alcohol. And it becomes evident that it’s not pubs in general that she objects to, but just ones that don’t fit her preferred model.
In Italy, when I socialised with friends and family, even late into the evening, it was as likely at a cafe or gelateria (ice cream parlour) as anywhere alcohol-focused. The difference, compared to the UK, was marked: most town centres boast spaces where families can and do go out on an evening.
But, of course, if she took the trouble to look, she would find that many modern British pubs sell far more food than drink and bend over backwards to be welcoming to families (much to the dismay of some of us). It is the typical negative stereotype of pubs as dysfunctional drinking dens that remains so popular with people who scarcely ever visit them. And many pubs offer a wide range of social activities, support their local communities through charitable events, and provide a social outlet for lonely people who otherwise would have very little human contact.
It’s also, as I’ve discussed before, impossible to come up with any kind of watertight distinction between “pubs” and “eating places”, given that many pubs now function primarily as restaurants anyway, while many places that present themselves as restaurants actually have a licensing and planning status that is identical to pubs. It seems that lockdown has simply given free rein to people’s censorious tendencies across a whole range of activities. “Isn’t it great that nobody’s now doing [insert particular thing I don’t like]?”
Obviously the lockdown has a severe economic cost, and the time will come when this, and the associated human suffering it creates, will be felt to exceed the benefits. Ultimately that is a political decision, but it is a decision that will have to be made. Tourism and hospitality are the third largest economic sector in Britain, and the economy won’t be able to return to anything like health until they are able to function. It goes far beyond just pubs. I’m not going to make any specific predictions, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to enjoy a pint in a pub well before Christmas, much to Ms Fae’s chagrin.
Meanwhile, in a faraway country of which we know nothing, the Czech Republic have published a lockdown exit timetable that will see indoor areas of bars open again on 25 May, or four weeks from next Monday. Regardless of the current swirl of speculation, are we really likely to be that far behind?