Insights Michael Baker

Knowing your limits

Smart campaigning through the pandemic intertwines the fate of our pubs with that of the nation

For at least 250 years, we have been warned about the dangers of excess drink. Periodic panic over the morals of a nation pickled showed in art and popular culture, from Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751) to Bravo TV’s Booze Britain (2004), and sequel Binge Nation (2005).

Fears in 2020 – relating to alcohol at least – are not that too much is being sold but not enough. The pandemic has twice shuttered pubs in England and the resulting panic is not merely over the fate of jobs but the survival of a way of life. Such is the support for pubs among media and commentators that Jonathan Neame, boss of the eponymous brewery, could say unchallenged on BBC Radio 4’s Today this week that the “soul of our country” is at stake if pubs to go to the wall. No other sector has come close to symbolising the economic and social hardship associated with the pandemic.

The extent to which the narrative has changed is a huge achievement for the industry and the British Beer and Pubs Association (BBPA), its trade body. They have smartly repositioned the sector away from representing an urban night-time economy to friendly, often rural inns at the heart of national life. Chef and landlord Tom Kerridge argues the Government should “look through” pubs’ alcoholic products and see them as the “living rooms of local communities”.

But the sector needs to take care to ensure that as the campaign wears on, it doesn’t come to resemble a night on the sauce. Voices become more shrill, repetition becomes wearing, points are exaggerated, good sense suffers and harder truths are forgotten.

The pandemic has accelerated social changes already underway that were damaging pubs’ prospects. We are spending more time on screens, there is less human contact and a plethora of entertainment can be enjoyed from the embrace of the sitting room sofa. Pubs are no longer more comfortable than homes. Although loneliness is increasing, people – especially the young – do not see their local as the answer. To cap it all UK alcohol consumption peaked in 2005 and abstinence is on the rise.

As such, the outrage the industry expressed at the Government’s offer of an additional £1,000 compensation per pub this week, which the BBPA described as “meagre”, looks in danger of being out of touch. Dismissing taxpayer money so swiftly – especially when many other sectors such as events are suffering just as much without being offered the same level of support – leaves the industry vulnerable to a backlash.

Sadly, last orders were already being called in many pubs, especially those that do not serve food. Teetotal Chancellor Rishi Sunak is trying to protect jobs and businesses that would survive and thrive if it weren’t for the pandemic. With a vaccine on the way, Neame’s call for financial support for the sector through to 2022 could look more like a bailout than emergency life support if care is not taken. When the tab for the pandemic’s costs is finally totted up, neither the public nor politicians will look favourably on sectors where taxpayer support has been extracted but merely masked the need for structural change.