Last orders? How Britain's community pubs are fighting to survive the coronavirus crisis

by Sarah Shearman | @shearmans | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 April 2020 23:01 GMT

Chairs are stored on the bar of the New Moon public house in Leadenhall Market, London, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, March 31, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

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With makeshift shops and takeaways, community-owned pubs find new ways to serve locals during COVID-19

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By Sarah Shearman

LONDON, April 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A pub in rural England was filling up with its usual after work crowd when Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all pubs and restaurants to close to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, prompting locals to flock in and place their last orders.

Within a few days, The Abingdon Arms had transformed into a makeshift shop selling food made on site and a takeaway service, with an army of volunteers delivering food to those in need.

"We have had really heartwarming responses from the community, saying how pleased they are to have such a supportive pub team," said Mike Hobbs, chairman of the community group that owns the pub just outside the southern city of Oxford.

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Lockdown measures threaten Britain's struggling pub sector, which has been hit by rising costs and changing consumer habits for a decade, but it has jolted establishments owned and run by local communities to find new ways to serve those around them.

A steady slew of pub closures, particularly in rural areas, has prompted locals to club together to buy and run ailing establishments themselves.

Britain has about 130 community-owned pubs, with more in the pipeline, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) – twice the number in 2016 but still a tiny proportion of the country's 39,000 pubs and bars, government data shows.

"The longer the current crisis carries on, the more likely it is that we will see pubs and clubs close their doors forever," said Tom Stainer, head of the consumer group, which has called on big pub chains to waive rents during the crisis.

Some 50 million pints of beer, lager and cider will go to waste in pub cellars across Britain if they pass their best-before dates during lockdown, according to CAMRA.

HEART OF COMMUNITIES

While community pubs have been "firefighting" and managing cashflow problems during coronavirus, many have also found innovative ways to help vulnerable locals, said Chris Cowcher, head of community business at the Plunkett Foundation.

Some have been linking their suppliers up with people struggling to get food and coordinating volunteer groups to help those in need, said Cowcher, whose organisation supports rural community-owned businesses.

"It is that community function of actually being a business that, while not trading, still recognises it has a huge role to play," said Cowcher.

"They are often the heart of communities in so many areas – and that is what will come out of this long term."

Community pubs are usually owned by about 200 shareholders, mostly local, who each get a vote in how they operate, with managers or tenants running the business day to day, supported by a committee of volunteers.

In addition to providing a place to eat and drink, these pubs have a mission to help their local communities, especially by combatting loneliness and isolation - which makes operating under lockdown particularly tough.

The Abingdon Arms, which has been in the quaint village of Beckley since the 17th century and usually has a packed schedule of social events, from coffee mornings to guided walks, plans to connect people in lockdown via virtual quizzes and talks.

It sells about 250 takeaway meals a week and with rent payments suspended, it is "more or less" breaking even, said Hobbs, chairman of the community owners' group.

Its temporary shop, selling bread, quiches, smoked meats and fish, is not making money, but is continuing as a community service because it is harder to access food in rural areas.

The longevity of the new operation is uncertain.

"We'll keep up the momentum in the best way we can - the need is there," said Hobbs. "I don't know how problematic it will be if it goes on for months, or a year."

FURLOUGHED

Shortly after Britain went into lockdown on March 23, the government announced measures to support businesses and workers during the crisis, including paying 80% of the wages of furloughed employees.

Community pubs could potentially use the scheme to temporarily lay off employees and essentially mothball their businesses until lockdown is over, said Cowcher.

When social distancing measures were first announced, the Bevy, a community pub on a council estate in Brighton, sprung into action, delivering about 30 meals a day to vulnerable people who usually go to its community lunches.

Although it has closed and furloughed its staff, volunteers continue delivering meals, including for children missing out on free school lunches, together with the Brighton Food Factory, a non-profit which sells and delivers food to community groups.

"The Bevy is simultaneously put in terrible financial jeopardy by COVID-19 while being perfectly placed to spearhead the community's response to the virus and its social consequences," said Iain Chambers of the Brighton Food Factory.

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(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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