‘I couldn’t wait’: Beer flows again in England’s pubs

Martine Pauwels, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jul 04 2020 11:10 PM | Updated as of Jul 05 2020 12:12 AM

A worker serves beer at The Holland Tringham Wetherspoons pub after it reopened following the outbreak of the COVID-19 in London July 4, 2020. Hannah McKay, Reuters

Some of the beer may be stale from sitting in kegs for over three months, but Britons were still eager to sip it on Saturday as England reopened its beloved pubs and lifted a wave of other coronavirus restrictions.

"We've been waiting for three or four months to get back to the pubs," said Nick, a 38-year-old accountant who popped out for a pint with three friends for the first time since everything shuttered in late March.

"At some point you've to get back out there," he said about the lingering dangers of an illness that has officially killed more people in Britain -- 44,131 -- than anywhere else in Europe.

The government is trying to coax its hospitality sector back to life on what has been touted as "Super Saturday".

Restaurants are finally allowed to open their doors to customers and barbers can get their clippers out. More people can gather for picnics without being approached and warned off by the police.

"I couldn't wait," said London pub manager Dorota Pilarczyk.

"Mentally I'm very happy. The lockdown has been pretty hard."

Getting into the spirit, The Spectator magazine warned against the dangers of drinking stale beer in pubs that were all shut in a hurry, suggesting that a pint actually might taste better on Sunday.

And Rishi Sunak, the finance minister, urged Britons to "eat out to help out", pointing out that pubs and restaurants often employed younger people entering the jobs market for the first time. 

"This is really about social justice," said Sunak.

But safety was still at the front of many people's minds and fear that physical distancing measures could be forgotten as alcohol blood levels rise late into the night. 

"I'm no killjoy," said Health Secretary Matt Hancock, "but the virus can still kill".

- 'Not worth the risk' -
The first nationwide closure of pubs since the Great Plague of 1665 had seen sales slump to the lowest level on record last month.

This pent-up demand could see pub takings soar nearly 75 percent to £210 million ($262 million) this weekend, the Centre for Economics and Business Research think-tank said.

But a stroll through one pub district in London's Greenwich neighbourhood showed nine establishments still closed.

One had just two customers having a drink in the garden on a chilly but dry afternoon.

In the centre of Newcastle, northeast England, where pubs are normally packed on weekends, just one in three will be open, the local council said.

Some decided to sit out the first weekend and see how safely it was to open back up.

"We are genuinely concerned that this could be a day of total chaos for the pub trade," the owners of the popular Tyne Bar on the city's Quayside said in a tweet.

"We've decided it's not worth the risk."

Government guidelines insist on "minimum contact" between staff and customers, with table service only and no standing around at the bar.

Drinkers will also have to give contact details in case of an outbreak, although a group can designate a single person who can then relay any bad news to the rest.

-- Don't blow it! --
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for the public to use common sense. "My message is, let's not blow this now, folks," he told LBC radio on Friday.

"We've worked so hard and together saved so many lives," he tweeted on Saturday. "Stick to the rules."

Johnson's handling of the entire crisis is coming under growing scrutiny, and his approval ratings have slumped in the past month.

He has been forced to defend his decision to reopen pubs on a weekend instead of a Monday, when the crowds might have been smaller and owners better able to iron out any initial kinks.

The emergency services have also warned the public not to overdo it.

West Yorkshire Police Federation chief Brian Booth said local accident and emergency departments were "akin to a circus full of drunken clowns" before the outbreak.

"We do not need this once again," he said.