As 4 July got closer and closer, there was a sense of mounting nervousness over how the licensed trade was expected to successfully bounce back, if it did not yet know the rules it was supposed to play by.
That date is now confirmed, with barely a week to go, and there is palpable relief that the government’s guidelines for operating are not too onerous, and largely advisory rather than dictatorial.
In the run-up to publication, it was feared customers would be forced to register their names, Marston’s Ralph Findlay one of those to express concern at such a measure.
As it stands, operators are merely being advised to keep a temporary record of customers and visitors for 21 days, to help assist the NHS Test and Trace scheme.
Those that do not already have a booking system for recording their customers and visitors will get help from the government to design a system in line with data protection legislation.
Booking systems are already widely used in casual dining, so the challenge will be for the more walk-in pub trade, particularly community and wet-led pubs.
The question for operators is will they feel the need to implement such as a system if it is only advisory?
And could customers reconsider a return to the pub if there is a risk they could be told to self-isolate for two weeks?
Several large names MCA spoke to said they were still digesting the detail, and opted to reserve comment for now.
Stonegate told MCA where it had the facilities to record customer data it would do so, while it would await further detail and support from government where it did not.
Describing the procedures as “light on detail”, Punch Pubs acknowledged the majority of its sites did not have advanced booking systems, so would requite a new process to be created and administered.
City Pub Group CEO Clive Watson said the measure was “a pain but workable”.
And St Austell CEO Kevin Georgel expressed concerns over the collection and storage of customer’s personal data.
“It would be a further logistical challenge for our pub teams to contend with and we want our guests to feel at ease when they return next weekend,” he said.
Georgel, also deputy chairman of the BBPA, said the company was prepared to assist with the track and trace programme, but that it needed more clarity on how the system will work as soon as possible.
“It’s important that the process is standardised and secure for our customers, as well as practically manageable for our staff, by the time we reopen,” he added.
Elsewhere, the rules on service were less stringent than expected, the wording saying indoor table service “must be used where possible”.
Outdoor table service “should also be encouraged”, although customers are permitted to stand outside if distanced appropriately.
Nor was there any specific ban on ordering at the bar, the wording acknowledging that bar or counter service might be “unavoidable”.
Meanwhile, businesses were told they “should consider” the cumulative impact of several venues reopening in a small area.
UK Hospitality CEO Kate Nicholls said the publication was pragmatic, and showed the Government had heeded calls for flexibility, giving venues “versatility to suit their own unique circumstances”.
“This is exactly what was needed to avoid restricting venues and making the job of reopening even harder,” she said.
UKH has been working with the Government to ensure any procedures would be workable and effective, so the contents will not have come as a great surprise to Nicholls.
She has previously characterised the next phase coming out of lockdown as the government shifting its messaging from an authoritarian public health tone, to one which emphasised individual responsibility.
With trust now being put in operators, she said the sector was placed to take care of customers.
“The emphasis is now going to be on businesses and customers to exercise some responsibility and ensuring that the guidance works optimally”, she added.
“Venues are acutely aware of the need to build up trust and consumer, and make customers feel safe in their venues.
“Looking after our guests is the hospitality sector’s modus operandi, so we have plenty of experience in taking care of customers and I am confident we can rise to this challenge.”
Hospitality Union’s Jonathan Downey, who has been campaigning alongside UKH, described the language of the guidance as “helpfully vague” which would give operators flexibility to do the right thing, in their own way.
“For many of us this will mean operating in a near normal way with some enhanced cleaning practices and lots of additional training, care and protection for our teams,” he said.
“For me, this means I can go to a Hawksmoor again in a few days and the experience won’t be any different to normal (apart from maybe a few, but not many, missing tables)…
“So it’s essentially up to you what you do and Government has done the right thing by trusting us to do the right thing (wherever possible).
“We’ve had to put up with delays and very late notice but this looks good for those that are keen and able to open.”
Downey urged peers to embrace the lack of clarity, or risk being lumbered with more unpopular measures.
“We like grey areas. We love vague,” he added. “We can work within and around anything that isn’t clear. Remember Tronc? That was all fine and included in the JRS until people started to question and meddle, and it cost our industry tens of millions.”
Operating guidance: ‘This is exactly what was needed’
As July 4 got closer and closer, there was a sense of mounting nervousness over how the licensed trade was expected to successfully bounce back, if it did not yet know the rules it was supposed to play by. That date now confirmed with barely a week to go, and the guidance released, there is palpable relief that the Government’s approach is advisory rather than dictatorial. In the run-up to publication, it was feared customers would be forced to register their names. Is it stands, operators are merely being advised to keep a temporary record of customers and visitors for 21 days, to help assist the NHS Test and Trace scheme. However concorns remain over the handling of customer data, and a lack of detail.