Pub sector leaders have expressed their disappointment at a Sky News investigation that claimed pubs and bars in England are “ignoring” coronavirus guidance and “potentially putting public health at risk.”

Yesterday evening (11 August), Sky released the findings of an investigation into a variety of hospitality venues in one Greater Manchester suburb, where an undercover team posing as walk-in customers observed site compliance to the coronavirus government guidance.

According to the report, nine out of 10 venues visited were not asking for customer details – a policy that has not yet been made mandatory in England– and two were “ignoring” social distancing.

William Lees-Jones, MD at Manchester-based pubco J.W. Lees described the report as “a cheap piece of journalism,” and added that the industry must now stand together in the face of such negative media.

“I could take Sky’s people around ten pubs and every single one of them would be more than compliant, but it struck me that it didn’t look like particularly high-quality pubs that they were in,” he told MCA.

“I’m surprised we didn’t get this sort of journalism on the 4 July, but the media until now has been quite supportive of people going out and we’ve seen the confidence grow in people.

“I’m now expecting a whole wave of negative media, and as a trade we will need to stand together, and I would be advocating that those people that are operating at poor standards get shut down.

“In my mind, this is no different to those pubs that trade after time or to underage customers which, as an industry, we need to get our act together on, and sometimes that means removing licenses from people.

“It would be really unfortunate if because of the behaviour of a small number of operators that other people lose their livelihoods.”

Robinsons co-managing director William Robinson said he had written to all of the group’s licensees in the last week, reminding them of the importance of track and trace.

He told MCA that the industry should treat the investigation as a “wake up call,” and must be vigilant now that certain strands of the media seem to be “looking for ways to have a pop at people.”

“I worry that we’re creeping back into negative press and negative stories,” he said. “There’s an agenda building, and it worries me that it seems to be pitching one segment of the economy against another segment of the economy, or one segment against education.

“This is a battle we’ve all got to live with, and we’ve all got to find our way through. The more we can stand up together on things and not seek to divide, despite the headline-grabbing nature of dividing groups, the better and the stronger we will be.”

Echoing his peers’ concerns, Thwaites pubs director Andrew Buchanan said that although the report is “not representative,” it could be used as a “stick to beat compliant publicans with.”

Buchanan said conversely, the report could be welcomed by the sector, as it highlights the difficulty of track and trace, ”because the guidelines are so vague.”

“The track and trace guidance from Government is so loose and open to interpretation that it’s very difficult for the industry,” he told MCA. “What would really help pubs is stricter guidelines.”

“Like all of these things, we need a degree of clarity and consistency. We’ve seen an absolutely unprecedented level of enforcement activity from local licensing and police officers in recent months, and to my knowledge I haven’t been made aware of a single pub that has been told that their track and trace solution is not compliant or not acceptable.

“There’s a whole myriad of different ways that people have been asked to do it and ultimately, it’s down to the consumer to comply.”

Hawthorn Leisure CEO Mark Davies told MCA that every pub in his 700-strong estate has been visited by its senior team since reopening to ensure compliance.

“We have auditors out in the field carrying out spot checks on track and trace details for specific days, so we’re as confident as we can be that our pubs are adhering to government guidance,” he said.

“I’ve seen how seriously the entire industry is taking this, so I’m confident that the isolated examples of pubs in Sky’s report are not representative of our pub estate or of the wider pub sector in the UK.”