The Fate of the Hospitality Sector under COVID-19 – a new prohibition?

Earlier this week, we were mercifully rid of the full lockdown restrictions, followed by the additional, positive news, of a newly approved COVID vaccine. Fully deserved congratulations to the incredible researchers, especially those representing Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. With the beginning of the end in sight, the road is still long, and amidst the flurry of competition to secure mass batches in the Western world, as the UK and US contract >$600 billion doses combined, other nations might struggle to afford such vast quantities.

Alongside this glimmer of hope, it is impossible to ignore the renewed restrictions still gripping the UK. In particular, the latest regulations have severely hampered the hospitality industry, whilst stringent alcohol-specific rules have thrust the fate of many pubs into doubt.

Across England, any establishments in Tier 2 can only serve each alcoholic drink when accompanied by a ‘substantial meal’, which must be consumed within two hours, and permits no ‘lingering’ once food has been finished. Additionally, all diners must be seated, and remain at their table for the duration of their pub experience. Combined with the Tier 3 regulations stating that pubs can only serve take-away meals, ‘wet-led’ pubs have effectively been abolished.

This notion is reinforced by there being >55 million people living in either Tier 2 or 3 (from an English population of just under 56 million). As of writing, around 60% reside in Tier 2. That only Cornwall, and the Isles of Wight and Scilly, are in Tier 1 just seems silly.

“[the government] must find a way to… end this devastating cycle of repeated restrictions”              

Scotland is enduring a similar fate, though in a five-levelled system, in which Levels 0 & 4 provide an additional extreme either side of the Tiering system.

Northern Ireland is (again, as of writing) a little over a week into a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’, forcing the closure of the hospitality sector entirely, and placing a curfew on off-licences, at 8pm.

 In relation to pubs, Wales is currently enduring the toughest restrictions. Curiously, though travel bans have been lifted, to allow even non-essential travel into Tiers 1 & 2 in England, hospitality has again been crushed, with bars and restaurants limited to take-aways, and obliged to close by 6pm.

This latest news is to the continuing detriment of an industry supplying employment to around 10% of the population, and the industry in which I am grappling for work. Furthermore, within a trend of sometimes arbitrary, sometimes nonsensical COVID restrictions, these latest regulations seem to press an unfair emphasis on pub-going, a veritable staple of British life.

Ironically, it was during the greatest pandemic of all that the British pub culture was actually founded: afflicted by the Black Death, people increasingly looked towards public houses in a fatalistic effort to drown their sorrows. Since the concept of social distancing had yet to be established, a variety of causes were blamed for the disease – anything from bad smells, wearing pointed shoes, or accusing Jewish people of poisoning wells. This freed people to descend upon pubs in great numbers, leading to the introduction of new laws governing how such establishments could operate, ultimately cultivating an official character, resembling modern pubs.

Before this, alcohol had still been of vital importance. Following around two centuries of disagreement between monarchs and nobility, Clause 35 written into the Magna Carta was designed to assuage debate, designating a uniformity of weights and measures in Ales, Wines, and Corn. Beer is literally enshrined in the closest thing we have to a Constitution.

In fact, aided by water having often been unsafe to drink, beer remained the primary English beverage of choice for almost a millennium. ‘Small beer’, offering around 2/3% alcohol content, was recommended to women and children, whilst men preferred ‘large beer’, containing roughly 10% alcohol. As England became seized by the so-called ‘Gin Craze’ in the early 18th Century, the Puritanical movement actually looked to reaffirm beer as the ‘virtuous’ option when satiating their drunken desires, opposed to the more dangerous spirit commonly known as ‘mother’s ruin’. These latest restrictions have been an attack against the British national character.

Understandably, they have been largely unpopular, both amongst the general population, and Tory backbenchers. Though Johnson passed his latest plan through MPs with a decisive majority of 291-78, 55 dissenting Conservative MPs, the highest number to date, stood in opposition, with a further 16 abstaining. Of the new restrictions, leader of the backbenchers committee Sir Graham Brady reported:

“If government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they’re acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary… Today, I believe the government has failed to make that compelling case”

A sentiment echoed throughout the Commons, by others including Mark Harper, who chairs the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group –

“[We] very much regret that in a moment of national crisis so many of us felt forced to vote against the measures that the government was proposing … [the government] must find a way to… end this devastating cycle of repeated restrictions and start living in a sustainable way until an effective and safe vaccine is successfully rolled out across the population”

Sir Keir Starmer, in classic Starmer fashion, ordered Labour MPs to abstain from the vote, though a further 15 defied him to vote in opposition.

Managing the pandemic is no easier a challenge than it was in March. Boris Johnson and his staff are in an unenviable position. I will continue to argue, however, that the delicate balance still being struck between health and the economy is insufficient. Those countries that now find themselves through the worst of COVID implement a rigid and lasting lockdown from the outset, survived it, and have now allowed workers to return to employment. Johnson’s wandering eye is ultimately helping no one – he needs to pick a partner. For anyone feeling victimised by their Tiering, all Johnson has offered is that they examine the ‘granular detail’ of local cases. Very reassuring.

Having been embroiled in a battle between priorities, there is now a lot of pressure to justify the latest restrictions, with a significant demonstration of the lives saved. That, I believe, is the current reality, no matter how priceless each individual life.

Needless to say, hospitality has fared poorly this year, a victim of attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID. From my title, you might have perceived the interesting, additional angle to be explored, through the similarities between these latest restrictions, and an established history of monitoring people’s drinking, most famously during prohibition.

The first evidence of prohibition, a legal code barring the specific sale of alcohol for money, dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, c.1754BC. In Britain, though regular consumption of alcohol was a societal norm, excessive drinking was still frowned upon, with public drunkenness mediated by the scorn of the community. Despite this, many records indicate traffic and work accidents likely owing to drunken clumsiness.

Closer to the 20th Century, most Nordic countries experimented with prohibition, as did then-British colony Nigeria, whilst notable examples of countries today prohibiting alcohol include Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Other nations have limitations on the distribution of alcohol, like Thailand, like banning its sale around elections – probably sensible, but cruel. As part of its COVID response, South Africa introduced full prohibition on March 27th, this year, which I suppose we were lucky to avoid.

One defining feature of this history has, however, been the human refusal to accept prohibition. People will never be denied; you can never curb our desire for alcohol.

In England, 2020, a pub-visit in pursuit of your drink ‘substantial meal’, defined as ‘at least the main course of Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner, served at a table’ closely mirrors the experience of visiting a New York pub, in 1896.

Following the growth of disreputable taverns, the Puritanical movement had been alarmed since the 1870’s by the illicit behaviours often associated with them, and finally achieved legislation in the form of ‘Raines Law’, 1896, with the specific goal of limiting the number and type of establishments allowed to serve alcohol. In a year, the cost of a licence tripled, whilst the sale of alcohol was also prohibited on Sunday – the only day of recreation for most workers. Additionally, curtains had to be raised, to provide street visibility, and the practice of ‘free lunches’, enticing patrons with free food, was abolished.

A classic pub lunch, now the only way to obtain a drink

The law was instituted to target only the most seedy establishments, and contained a glaring, legal loophole: alcohol could be served when accompanied by food, and when served in a hotel (defined has having more than ten rooms). Additionally, only ‘hotels’ could serve alcohol on Sundays. Theoretically, this would exempt the richer, upmarket establishments. It also provided the shadier saloons with an opportunity.

Applying for hotel licences, proprietors would cram beds into basements, or attics, often without actual room furnishings or even dividers. To bypass the requirement of serving food, new ‘meals’ were invented, and placed on the menu. When first taken to court, a judge ruled that a single sandwich could be justifiably regarded as an appropriate food serving, so it became the new standard. Since their customers were not concerned with actually eating, pub owners would devise the cheapest sandwich possible, typically consisting of expired ingredients. Having been delivered, these sandwiches were removed from the table within seconds, to be placed on another table. This practice developed into both the ‘rubber sandwich’, and even better, the ‘brick sandwich’: an actual brick, between two pieces of bread. Delicious.

Already, debate has ensured over the parameters of a ‘substantial meal’ today. Is a scotch egg a meal? What is a bar snack? What even constitutes a table, or structure serving the purposes of a table?

Back in 1890s New York, Raines Law produced another, fantastically amusing side-effect. For the first time, all taverns were now, by law, required to provide convenient beds mere meters from their drunken patrons. An attempt to improve virtuous behaviour therefore subsequently massively increased rates of casual sex and prostitution. Propagators of Raines Law would continue their struggle, founding the ‘Committee of Fourteen’ in 1905, and taking another case to the Supreme Court, in 1907, though it was only ruled that any meal should be ‘delivered in good faith’.

This struggle over alcohol would eventually be settled by the 18th Amendment, enforcing national prohibition from 1920-33, though this, of course, only drove drinking underground, and encouraged a renewed surge in the ‘home-brewing’ business so popular a century earlier.

Additionally, our new restrictions in 2020 have been equally reminiscent of another, fun historic episode. In Wales, not only has alcohol been outlawed, but a 6 O’clock curfew has been slapped onto off-licences. Presumably, this is in anticipation of people hoping to leave work and grab a drink.

By a similar logic, Australia and New Zealand introduced a 6 O’clock alcohol curfew themselves (by national referendum, perhaps surprisingly), coming into effect between 1916 and 1917, depending on the region. The Temperance movement had gained traction heading into the 20th Century, propelled by the perceived necessity of moderation and rationing during WWI. This, initially temporary, regulation became so popular, however, it lasted in New Zealand until 1967, even surviving another referendum in 1949 (okay, maybe people haven’t always ‘rebelled’ against prohibition).

But despite people endorsing limited drinking hours, the creation of a new event was sparked, demonstrating a continued love affair with the consumption of alcohol.

The ‘6 O’clock swill’ was inspired. Patrons, their appetite for alcohol unperturbed, forced themselves to cram in the same volume as a typical evening session into one single hour, between leaving work and 6 O’clock. Bars would heave with sweaty, anxious bodies often so concerned by losing their position, they would urinate where they stood. Scenes of surging crowds of men (women were banned from bars until 1961, to discourage prostitution in this newly virtuous society) scrabbling for alcohol were described as akin to images of hell. Somewhat disastrously, these alcohol regulations were also not accompanied by drink driving laws – customers, having drunk in a solid effort for an hour, often on empty stomachs, could then drive themselves home. Yes, traffic accidents were numerous.

Though the original intention might not have been met, the persistence of these regulations is evidence of their popularity.

Pubs preferred this system, since they could abandon the pretence of cultivating pleasant ambiance, focussing instead on extending the length of bars. Staff transitioned into salaried workers, from hourly contracts, affording them the same ultimate wage, for fewer hours. Nuclear families benefitted, since fathers would be home sooner, though slightly inebriated, but still present (physically at least) for their wives and children.

It should be unsurprising that, generally speaking, people like to drink. It’s an enjoyable activity, and a brilliant social lubricant. Obviously, the practice is also pervaded by inherent danger.

Conducting research in early July, a Drinkaware study found a 22% increase in the alcohol consumption of UK adults from the start of lockdown. Alongside factors like stress, boredom featured as a prevalent motivation for this rise. It has been an intensely straining time – congratulations for making it through, however you might have spent your time.

Countering this trend of increased alcohol consumption is a 15% rise in UK adults now considering themselves sober. The pressure of isolation has moved some individuals towards routines they themselves recognised as problematic, verging on alcohol abuse. As a result, lockdown has also provided the space to challenge people’s relationships with alcohol, deciding, ultimately, they don’t need it.

If history has demonstrated anything, no prohibition laws will ever eradicate the population’s desire to drink, and the latest UK regulations will be no different. In the broader and unique context of lockdown, the pandemic has inadvertently driven some people towards becoming sober, yet another, interesting, alcohol-related outcome, adverse from the original intention.

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9 thoughts on “The Fate of the Hospitality Sector under COVID-19 – a new prohibition?

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    1. It is interesting how it’s gone both ways… lockdown coincided with my leaving uni, so I did start drinking less this year for other reasons, but I found myself getting into a better exercise routine as a result. I agree that the future is concerning for hospitality


  1. This is an interesting post. I definitely think things will be different. I certainly have been thinking a lot about how things were pre covid and how much we are all at risk of disease and germs. It is scary to think what might happen. Thank you for sharing your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – long term, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a return to previous practice, and considerably more stringent health measures will probably have to be in place for, as you say, all sorts of diseases and germs

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I actually work in the hospitality industry and I can see how its affected all of the businesses, out of the 12 months this year I have only been at work for 6 of them!

    I feel for the industry, there will be a lot of your small Micropubs which probably won’t make it due to the losses!

    I mean Christmas has been cancelled for a lot of pubs, and if areas remain in tier 3 that’s just going to have a horrific knock on effect.

    Liked by 1 person

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