Pubs and restaurants could reopen as soon as April on the condition that they agree not to sell alcohol, according to reports.
Ministers are considering a a temporary “booze ban” as part of the government’s roadmap for lifting lockdown set to be unveiled on 22 February, the Telegraph reported.
Scientists are understood to be concerned that a return to serving alcohol after months of closure would significantly compromise adherence to social distancing.
Under plans being considered, venues will only be able to serve alcohol through takeaway pints in April, before fully reopening in May.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted it is “still early days” to start talking about opening up society, despite last week promising 2021 would see the return of the “Great British summer”.
But ministers face mounting pressure from business leaders to drum up a strategy for reopening the hospitality sector, which employs around 3.2m people across the country.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow minister for business and consumers, slammed the proposed alcohol ban as a “half measure”, warning that it would be “deeply damaging for pubs and hospitality”.
“Rather than forcing them to open but not sell alcohol, the government should protect jobs and businesses by making the furlough scheme smart and giving businesses access to the emergency support they need – keeping it in place until necessary measures are lifted,” she said.
“Ideas like this could see Covid cases rise and business thrown under the bus needlessly. The vaccine gives us a way out — the last thing businesses need now is ridiculous speculation about reopening under unviable terms.”
Details of the vaccine rollout programme revealed yesterday that the government plans to have all adults in the UK vaccinated by May.
Samuel Kasumu, adviser to the Prime Minister on ethnic minorities, announced the target in a resignation letter leaked to the BBC that he later retracted.
The timeline means more than 32m people — almost half the UK population — will have been offered a first dose of the vaccine in time for local elections to take place on 6 May.
Schools are expected to be the first to reopen when lockdown restrictions are eased, after the PM insisted returning pupils to the classroom was the government’s “number one priority”.
Discussions within Whitehall around reopening the hospitality sector are understood to remain stalled over whether to allow two households to mix in public venues, and to ditch the “substantial meal” requirement that featured in England’s tier system.
The alternative to an alcohol ban is said to be to delay the reopening of pubs and restaurants until later in the year to allow for the widespread rollout of Covid vaccines.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said: “We welcome the opportunity to have sensible and pragmatic discussions with the government about the pace and nature of reopening.
“It’s important that any restrictions deliver the maximum health benefits for minimum economic harm. That’s why we are pleased they are revisiting curfew and substantial table meals.
“But it’s vital that the ongoing support takes into account the latest economic situation. It’s important that support continues through recovery while companies struggle to break even.”