As publicans from the Borders to the Highlands and Moray turned out customers early and locked their doors that evening, I couldn’t have imagined that it would be more than a year later before people might be able to stand at the bar with friends and share a drink while listening to music or watching football on the television.
Since that moment, Scottish pubs have undoubtedly endured their most tumultuous year on record. We have been nationally locked down, re-opened, put into levels of restrictions leaving very few pubs able to open and finally nationally locked down again. And now we wait to be re-opened.
Last week, speaking in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister provided a glimmer of hope for publicans; she announced her intention to set out a firmer indicative timeline for re-opening the economy, including hospitality.
It is hope that is much needed. This past year has taken a devastating toll on our sector.
Speaking for Belhaven and Greene King, one week of closures costs every managed pub between £4,000 and £5,000. When you consider that we have 244 pubs, that is an incredibly high figure for us to absorb.
More than half of our pubs in Scotland are tenanted, many of whom are single-site operators running small businesses which would be facing over £1,000 a week loss if we were not helping with 90 per cent reductions in rent. Yes, the UK government’s support packages, including furlough payments and business rates holidays have helped, but the fact remains that we have significant fixed costs to cover every day.
And of course, the impact of closures hasn’t only taken its toll financially. It has taken its toll on people’s lives too. I know of pub landlords who are unable to heat their homes because they live above the pub they operate, and the cost of warming the premises is too costly. I also know many communities that feel they have lost their beating heart because the pub at its centre remains closed and with its lights off. This is a far cry from the usual vibrancy of Scotland’s pub sector.
But hope means very little without a plan. In England, there is now a roadmap out of lockdown. While far from perfect, it gives a business like mine something concrete to plan around. That is what we desperately need from the First Minister when she makes her announcement tomorrow.
Ideally her plan will mirror what we have in England, a clear timeline for re-opening pubs, phased if necessary, and clarity on what restrictions will be in place and crucially the unjustified restrictions we experienced in previous lockdowns will be done away with.
Pubs have had to contend with a combination of restrictions from the sensible to the laughable: from the ‘rule of six’ and table service only to 10pm curfews and only ordering alcohol with a ‘substantial meal’.
But the Scottish government has consistently gone further – bans on background music, watching sport or ordering alcohol after 6pm which closed most pubs in all but name, even if they were technically allowed to open.
Some of these restrictions were so bewildering it left me wondering if politicians had ever visited their local and they have disproportionately hurt Scotland’s pubs.
Last summer, when restrictions were loosened across the UK, we were able to re-open 90 per cent of our pubs in Scotland yet trading was significantly below the levels seen in England and Wales and that trend continued prior to the latest lockdown.
People want to go to their local pub to enjoy the atmosphere as much as drink, take that away and there is little reason to visit. It’s no wonder we’ve seen sales of alcohol from supermarkets soar as people opt to drink at home behind closed doors.
We need a simple, national plan that allows us to open and to operate without onerous restrictions.
We employ over 3,000 people in Scotland, at our Belhaven brewery in Dunbar and in pubs across the country. And the health and well-being of every one of those 3,000 colleagues matters to me, as does the well-being of our customers.
That is why we have invested more than £15m in ‘pub safe’ hygiene and safety measures across our pubs in addition to the millions of pounds spent on having extra people to clean and manage a safe environment.
These measures include implementing a safe socialising layout, with clear signage to direct customers, while tables are spaced out in line with government guidelines. Customers are encouraged to order through our Order and Pay app, rather than at the bar, and are asked to use the hand-sanitiser stations on arrival.
When pubs re-opened last year these measures proved to be a huge success and we received positive feedback from customers who felt safe visiting our pubs. There simply isn’t any evidence for onerous restrictions, let alone ones that are ill thought through and make running a commercially viable pub impossible.
Tomorrow the First Minister – knowing that pubs like ours have sensible measures in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus and that the vaccine roll-out continues to gather pace – has an opportunity to provide Scotland’s pubs with such a plan.
With pubs sitting at the heart of so many Scottish communities and one in 20 people working in food and beverage service, it is vital to get it right. Pubs can be part of the solution as we look ahead to rebuilding the economy and communities after the pandemic.
Do so and it will breathe life into Scotland’s pubs, jobs and livelihoods. Get it wrong and the Scottish government risks damaging the nation’s pub sector for decades to come.
Nick Mackenzie is chief executive of Greene King, a company that includes pub group Belhaven