The Handbook
The Handbook

One of the few good things about lockdown is that you know exactly where you stand. We’ve not had to memorise a new set of rules each week, rules that invariably totally contradict last week’s and where transgression risks social opprobrium at best and a £10,000 covid fine at worst. But, as we start to look to easing the lockdown, it sounds like the government are already cranking up the bizzare-o-meter.

Take the news this weekend that the government are thinking of reopening pubs. Hurrah! Not so quick, there’s a twist. But without booze… Take a moment to read that back again: the government is thinking of opening pubs. But without alcohol. Which is like opening an ice cream parlour, but without ice cream. Or McDonalds minus the creepy clown.

The eye catcher was front page of the Telegraph this Saturday, and claimed to be sourced from government insiders who who’d leaked details to the paper (presumably with the intention of making the government backtrack) that pubs and restaurants may reopen as long as they don’t serve alcohol.

Taking things a step further than the previous stipulation that alcohol could only be served ‘with a substantial meal’ (or a scotch egg), the move was apparently intended to please Chris Whitty who is said to be very concerned by the effect of alcohol on social distancing.

The narrative that alcohol is somehow intrinsically linked to the spread of the coronavirus has been about for a while and feels a little spurious, perhaps the people most likely to ignore social distancing are also the sort of people who want to get drunk and fight in the streets and pass on COVID anyway?

The idea, which would likely see pubs remain shut but would also deal yet another blow to restaurants, which don’t exactly promote a binge-drinking culture, was quickly shot down by the government and either whoever leaked the barmy idea got their way or else Number 10 discovered that the kite they were flying was likely to hit a lightning storm. Also, it sold copies of the Telegraph.

The Beer Garden at Brixton's Hope & Anchor

But the fact it was even being discussed is a flag that there’s more bonkers-ness incoming.

The paper also suggested that the government could follow the Scottish example, with drinking only allowed outside. Which would hit restaurants, where drinking tends to take place responsibly but inside, disproportionately harder than pubs, which often have beer gardens. It would also disadvantage London, where outdoors space is at a premium, more than the regions.

And if adopted, the rule would, as ever, fall down at the first application of logic – why is alcohol served outside less likely to make people so drunk they forget to socially distance? And surely seated indoors drinkers are surely easier for pubs and restaurants to keep socially distanced than standing outdoors drinkers?

Either way, the Prime Minister has now committed to finally revealing our ‘roadmap out of this mess’ on Monday February 22nd, and he’s understood to be planning a return to school on March 8th (for our children, not himself, sadly) and socialising outdoors to be back on (expect another run on patio heaters – I bought a huge awning last time that has yet to shelter a single guest).

And, perhaps most important to us here at The Handbook, he’ll signal when what’s left of the hospitality industry can finally start up again.

One aspect of hospitality reopening we’re not expecting to see return are the 10pm curfew, which we have rightly mocked in the past as being scientifically, economically and intellectually nuts. The super-spreading policy, that saw drinkers poured en-mass onto the streets and public transport,  has apparently been confined to the Pooper Scooper of 2020.

But so has another policy that was so whimsically moronic that we rather loved it. The Scotch Egg rule.

When the government’s made-on-the-fly policy that alcohol could only be served ‘with a substantial meal’ was scrutinised, ministers caved and suggested popular bar snack, and my favourite food group, the Scotch egg would, for some inconceivable reason, count. The bone fide bozo ruling no doubt hastened the inevitable upcoming lockdown, but nevertheless we loved it if only because it raised the profile of this humble foodstuff and afforded us a few precious extra hours in the pub before Boris called time.

What’s crystal clear is that the PM won’t be taking to the podium in two-Mondays-time to declare ‘war is over’ and to throw open every restaurant door across the nation. Things will reopen creakingly slowly and according to some method, however mad. We’re desperate to hear the detail, as well as the support that will be made available to the hospitality sector.

But what’s also clear is that there’s going to be some more bizarre nonsenses marching in our direction. We’ll keep you informed…

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