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On Monday, I wrote about how some local councils were doing their best to put a spanner in the works of pubs reopening their outside areas. Given that this was the first opportunity that pubs had had to trade for at least three and a half months, and that most were doing their best to give customers a warm welcome, I didn’t want to strike a sour note. However, inevitably there were some that did themselves no favours by adding new restrictions of their own.
The Angel in at Corbridge in Northumberland made the national news when they turned away a pensioner because he didn’t have a smartphone onto which he could download their ordering app. To the pub’s credit, they apologised and offered him drinks on the house, and hopefully it has also resulted in them changing their policy, but they certainly weren’t the only establishment to do this. It isn’t illegal as such, although given that, as the article reports, half of those aged 65 to 74 and 70% of the over-75s do not have a smartphone, a case could be made that it represents indirect discrimination against a group protected by equalities legislation.
However, surely it is rank bad business, as it excludes a large swathe of your potential clientele, especially considering that the over-65s are amongst the most enthusiastic patrons of rural dining pubs. Even if you have a suitable phone, you may not want to download an app for a one-off visit. I have the Wetherspoon’s app on my phone because I regularly use them, but I wouldn’t see the point of having any others unless I was going to be a frequent visitor. On my previous phone, which I replaced less than two years ago, I had run out of space for downloading any new apps anyway. And who is going to want to download an app and work out how to use it if they’re just popping in for a swift pint and are unlikely to return?
Then there have been reports of pubs, and other hospitality venues such as Costa Coffee, refusing admission to people without smartphones carrying the NHS track and trace app. This seems even more self-defeating, given that surveys have shown that a majority of people who even have a suitable phone haven’t downloaded it. It also won’t work on older smartphones.
Not only is this bad business, it is also illegal. The government guidelines on the use of the app specifically say: “Venues must not make the specific use of the NHS QR code a precondition of entry (as the individual has the right to choose to provide their contact details if they prefer).” “Must” in such documents, as in the Highway Code, signifies a legal requirement. However, you can’t imagine council staff being quite so assiduous about enforcing this piece of law as they are about applying tape measures to outside shelters.
This is nothing new, either. Last September, during that brief window of reasonably unfettered opening that pubs enjoyed last summer, I wrote about the tendency for some pubs to gold-plate the government requirements and add some extra on top, suggesting it had given free rein to licensees’ inner jobsworth.
Some of the policies pubs have introduced arise simply out a lack of thought, but others clearly come across as deliberate. If you’ve decided to do away with beermats and ditch the charity boxes on the bar, if you’ve stopped taking cash payments and make everyone download an app to order, if you’re insisting on people making an advance booking just to have a drink, if you’ve festooned your pub with yellow tape and half-baked one-way systems, it’s not because the guidelines expect it, because they don’t. It’s because, deep down, you want to. And customers will remember where they were welcomed, and where they were treated like something the cat dragged in.
One obvious example that has reared its head again is refusing to accept cash, which is encouraged by compulsory table service. I have written about this trend in the past. Hopefully when bar service is resumed, then pubs will be more inclined to take cash again, and may at the same time cease to mandate app ordering. Another one that didn’t apply last September is making the wearing of masks compulsory in outside areas, where they are certainly not required by law. This is an officious, unreasonable rule that is likely to alienate customers and creates a potential flashpoint.
Most pubs aren’t doing this sort of thing, but reports suggest that a significant minority are. And, if you are visiting unfamiliar pubs, it means you can never be quite sure whether you are going to walk into somewhere with a friendly, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, or a privately-run version of Stalag Luft XIV.
Of course all pubs and other hospitality venues should abide by the law. But they have a choice whether to implement the requirements with a light touch, or a heavy hand, and that is something that customers will remember when (or if) we finally once again reach the sunlit uplands of full reopening.