UK pubs look to rejuvenate after bitter lockdowns

·3-min read
Landlady Emma Parkhouse (L) and Landlord Sheridan Edwards pose for a photograph outside the Great Northern pub in St Albans, north of London on March 18, 2021.

Pots of paint rather than barrels of beer are the order of the day at the Great Northern pub, one year after the UK entered its first Covid-19 lockdown.

As the government prepares to gradually lift restrictions on hospitality following a third shutdown, pub managers Emma Parkhouse and Sheri Edwards are sprucing up the walls of the Victorian establishment they run in the city of St Albans, close to London.

"I never imagined a year later that we'd still be closed," said Parkhouse, standing behind a bar lacking in beer.

"It's been tough, we've had a lot of obstacles thrown at us but we've tried to remain positive," she told AFP from the independently-run pub situated next door to The Odyssey cinema, also closed since the latest government curbs were imposed just before Christmas.

- Garden service -

"We couldn't afford to have another lockdown," said Edwards, noting that the coronavirus pandemic had "wiped out" profits from 2019.

Parkhouse said the Great Northern -- which competes with the cathedral city's other numerous pubs -- had managed to stay afloat thanks to "crucial" state financial support and their "reinvention of the business" to offer takeaway pints and food.

As well as freshening up the building's interior with patterned wallpaper, changes are being made to its garden, with enhanced social distancing measures.

From April 12, English pubs will be allowed to serve alcohol only to customers seated outside, with indoor premises having to wait another month before reopening.

"We're already fully booked for that first week... just got to pray that it doesn't rain," said Parkhouse, shortly after an early morning drizzle had dampened the paved garden.

- Lost pubs -

The British Beer and Pub Association says the UK has lost about 2,000 of its 50,000 watering holes over the past year -- a blow to an industry already hit by changes in social habits, property taxes and fierce competition from supermarkets.

"Our sector has been devastated by Covid-19 and the lockdowns," said BBPA chief executive Emma McClarkin.

UK pub beer sales last year slumped by £7.8 billion ($10.9 billion, 9.1 billion euros), according to the association.

That was a drop of 56 percent compared with 2019.

"Sadly, we still haven't seen the full extent of the damage yet and won't do for some time until things really do go back to normal," McClarkin added in a recent update on the sector.

CAMRA, which seeks to promote real ale and safeguard pubs as part of Britain's cultural and social heritage, expressed hope despite the prospect of more closures.

"It's difficult to predict, but we are optimistic," Iain Loe, a representative of the lobbying group, told AFP.

"We're grateful for what little help... (the government) have given. We'd like a bit more, and we'll continue to press them for more."

Fallout from the pub lockdowns has also impacted customers, in particular those whose only contact on a regular basis is "a friendly face" at their local, according to Parkhouse.

"The isolation, it's horrible. You come to the pub as somewhere to connect with people," she said.

"A lot of people do rely on us and we rely on them and we've got a really close relationship with our neighbours and it's been devastating not seeing them all."