Monday 15 February 2021 1:17 pm

Wetherspoons boss calls for pubs to open alongside non-essential shops

Wetherspoons chairman Tim Martin has urged the government to reopen pubs at the same time as non-essential shops, as the Prime Minister prepares to lay out his “roadmap” for exiting lockdown.

Martin called for a clear timeline for pubs across the UK to resume selling pints, warning the industry is “on its knees” from months of closure.

“Surely it is possible for the hospitality industry to reopen at the same time as non-essential shops now that a vaccine exists, on the basis of the social distancing and hygiene regulations —which were agreed with the health authorities after full consultation — for the 4 July reopening last year,” he said.

Martin warned: “Unless the industry does reopen on that basis, economic mayhem will inevitably follow.”

Wetherspoons investors appeared buoyed by the demands this afternoon, with shares hiking more than four per cent to 1,263.5p.

The pub chain’s 872 venues across the UK have remained largely shuttered under lockdown restrictions over the winter.

Under the previous tier system, most pubs around the country were only allowed to remain open if they served a “substantial meal”, while others were forced to shut entirely.

While Boris Johnson has not yet set out a clear timeline for reopening the hospitality sector, plans being considered are said to include allowing pubs to reopen for takeaway alcohol sales only.

“The big worry in the hospitality industry is that the government is playing a PR game, creating an illusion of positive action, and will find an excuse to tie the industry down with restrictions,” said Martin. “As a result the entire industry would be heavily loss making.”

Speaking to City A.M., he added: “Since 4 July last year there have been few weeks during which the government position has remained the same. The last proposition was that pubs could reopen in April without serving beer — a ludicrous idea. We can’t see any point in trying to plan reopening now.”

In October, the pub chain sank to its first loss since 1984 as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Wetherspoons fell to a pre-tax loss of £34.1m for the 52 weeks to 26 July, down from a profit of £102.5m in the same period last year. 

The chain put all of its 872 pubs and hotels into “hibernation” at the outbreak of the pandemic and furloughed 99 per cent of its 43,000-strong workforce.

Martin noted that the company has generated more than £6.1bn in taxes for the British economy over the last 10 years, adding that closures within the hospitality industry will pull hard on the country’s purse strings.

“The taxes paid by Wetherspoon are mirrored by thousands of companies which have been annihilated by lockdowns. As a result, government finances have been annihilated even more.”

Roadmap out of lockdown

Johnson has promised 2021 will see the return of the “Great British summer”, with the nation’s largest ever vaccination programme earmarked as the light at the end of the tunnel.

The government today met its target of vaccinating the top four priority groups, with more than 15m people receiving their first dose of a Covid vaccine so far.

The Prime Minister has pledged to set out a “roadmap” on 22 February for exiting lockdown over the next few months. Schools are expected to be the first section of society to reopen, then outdoor recreation, and hospitality and non-essential retail much further down the line.

But leading figures in the hospitality sector have warned that failing to prioritise the reopening of pubs and venues will cause thousands of job losses over the next few months.

More than 160 chief executives from the UK’s leading hospitality businesses this morning announced they have written to the chancellor ahead of next month’s Budget calling for economic support for the sector.

The letter, co-ordinated by trade body UKHospitality urged Rishi Sunak to extend the five per cen VAT rate for hospitality for another year, and a continuation of the business rates holiday for hospitality for the whole of 2021/22.

“Despite the carnage of the past twelve months, hospitality businesses are ready to pick up the pieces of a battered economy and help spearhead our economic revival,” said UKHospitality chief Kate Nicholls.

“Lots of businesses have taken a beating and many are still only just clinging on… Support must continue if we want to see as many businesses and jobs secure as possible, and hospitality play the key role we know it can play in rebuilding.”