A pint at 9am. Pubs fight back from lockdown

Simon English
·3 min read
Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin compares closing pubs over coronavirus to shutting Parliament
Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin compares closing pubs over coronavirus to shutting Parliament

Having the first drink of the day at 9am carries a certain social stigma. Unless you’re in an airport. Or it is Christmas Day. Or if the nation has just emerged, blinking and giddy with excitement, from its second lockdown of the year.

I am at the JD Wetherspoon’s on Holloway Road, a cavernous, somewhat glorious pub I’ve loved for years. It is made for social distancing.

The Coronet was originally the Savoy Cinema, opening in 1940, becoming the Coronet in 1979 and screening its last film four years later. It still looks like an old dance hall. The ghost of Fred Astaire is on the walls.

Not everyone likes ‘Spoons pubs, but I think they are great. The beer is varied, the food filling and the prices cheap. So it attracts folk on a budget, which lately includes nearly all of us.

Not everyone likes founder and chairman Tim Martin either. Opinions are roughly split between those who think he is a gobby Brexiteer yob and those who think he should be PM.

I ask chairman Martin if it is ok to have a drink. He texts me: “Standard journalists start work early, so a 9am sharpener is more than justified. Since pubs have been shut down twice already this year, they might not be open by lunch anyway.”

I order a pint of Guinness and a ‘Spoons breakfast, but surely Guinness counts as a substantial meal in its own right.

Pubs are more than places to get a drink. Used as intended, they make us feel better, give us a sense of optimism even in dark times.

They are also part of the fabric of British society. Pub companies don’t tend to base themselves in offshore locations to evade tax.

JDW alone contributes £750 million in tax each year and has 43,000 staff. Today the staff are chipper. They are glad to be back, doing what they do best, which includes taking very little nonsense from customers including me.

Some pub bosses, including Simon Emeny of Fuller, Smith & Turner, thinks pubs have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment during the pandemic.

He told the Standard a few days ago: “We provide employment, we provide much-needed tax revenue, we also provide enjoyment for people's mental wellbeing. It seems illogical that we are being singled out.”

He is not alone in seeing a conspiration from a government led by people who prefer dinner parties to pubs.

Killian Lynch, who runs the WB Yeats on Fonthill Road near Finsbury Park, tells me: “My opinion is that all of the guidelines that we have been given following both lockdowns has been intentionally unclear. I believe they have done this to cover their own backs. If the hospitality industry was given clear instructions as to how to implement and police the regulations, and afterwards there were to be an increase in Covid related illnesses, the government would have only themselves to blame. By shifting the responsibility of their poorly thought out policies they are leaving the door open to lay the blame with the hospitality industry.”

For retailers including Debenhams the end of lockdown has come too late. For some pubs too. Wetherspoons, and the WB Yeats, will be ok.

I emerge from my unusually early drink at about 10.30am. It is crisp outside. People are going about their business almost as normal.

I won’t quite say all is right with the world, but today at least, things are looking up.