Express & Star

'Give us a fighting chance' call as pubs and clubs crippled by Covid crisis

Pubs and clubs crippled by Covid will not survive January, landlords in the Midlands warned today.

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Landlord Bob Singh hopes the punters will return to the Yew Tree pub

An historically quiet December, rising prices and customers who are staying at home could be the death knell for premises across the Black Country and Staffordshire.

The Government decision not to implement another lockdown has been one bright spot in a dismal winter for the hospitality industry.

But New Year bookings have slumped for many as people decide to stay at home.

New data reveals pubs, bars and restaurants lost £10,335 on average in the week leading up to Christmas.

On Christmas Day takings were down 60 per cent compared with 2019. The average losses are above the maximum £6,000 cash grants offered to each affected venue by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of his £1 billion fund announced last week.

Bob Singh remembers when the pubs of Wolverhampton were rammed most nights

Landlord of the Yew Tree, Chapel Ash, Bob Singh has been a publican in Wolverhampton since 1989 and has never known trade be so bad.

Mr Singh, 62, said: “We had an awful festive period. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is always heaving but this year I had to send staff home because we were so quiet.

“We’ve not known what to order in because we did not know whether there would be a lockdown. Last time we lost £10,000 in stock and cannot afford for that to happen again. We are losing customers all the time; people have got used to staying in and we are competing against Tesco.”

Mr Singh believes to prevent scores of pubs closing across the Black Country, the Government needs to help the industry. He said: “We need help, the chancellor should cut tax on beer, give us a fighting chance against supermarkets who sell alcohol at silly prices.”

He can remember when big spending customers were three deep at the bar of his pub, most days of the week, but on Christmas Eve, Bob had to send staff home early because they were standing idle in his empty pub.

The 62-year-old got the keys to his first pub in 1989, the Red Lion in Wolverhampton, and over the last 30 years has owned various premises across the city.

He currently owns The Yew Tree in Chapel Ash which he calls "a drinkers' pub". Despite loving being a landlord the challenges of 2021 has left Bob's glass half empty.

He said: "People have got used to staying in because of the lockdowns, and they can buy alcohol really cheap at the supermarkets. Pubs cannot compete with the deals Tesco have so to stop loads of pubs closing the Government needs to do something, a lot wont make it past January.

"They could cut tax on beer, reduce VAT and other things to give pubs a chance because Covid has crippled so many landlords."

UKHospitality released the latest data on pub losses. Its chief executive Kate Nicholls called for rates relief and a pledge to keep VAT at 12.5 per cent.

She said: “Hospitality businesses have been hit hard during a key trading period – and this after missing out on the crucial Christmas sales last year.”

The Express & Star spoke to 15 local pubs and social clubs and all said the £6,000 Government grant offered before Christmas, which those eligible can claim at the end of January, will be a tiny proportion of the money they have lost business due to Covid.

Pubs were first ordered to close in March 2020 and statistics from June 2021 showed the pandemic had been the death knell for 473 in England and Wales, the West Midlands had the second highest number of closures in the country with 57 vanishing.

Leanne Giblin at the Duke of York pub, Lichfield

Leanne Giblin, 37, who runs the Angel Inn and the Duke of York in Lichfield reported festive trade was down 50 per cent on normal years.

She said: “We are suffering because people have been scared by the Government not to come out. We are also trying to cope with staff issues concerning Covid, I make sure my staff test every day but some are isolating but totally healthy.”

"The number of customers are 50 per cent down on normal years, which is worrying for the busiest time of the year. The £6,000 the Government has offered us for lost business is tiny compared what we have lost."

Leanne is also part of Lichfield Business Improvement District committee and the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and knows her pubs are not alone in feeling the strain.

She said: "I know five restaurants that have had to close due to various Covid reasons and one Lichfield pub is having to close at 8pm every night because they have not got the staff.

"The Government might not have locked us down but with the rules on isolating and warning everyone they would miss Christmas if they caught Covid it meant lots of people stayed in. So we are getting the negative effects of lockdown without being locked down."

Leanne also blames Brexit for supply issues her pubs are experiencing.

She said: "We can't get the wines people like in the amounts we need because they are stuck in some port somewhere, which is frustrating and because of Brexit."

Black Country businessman Amanjot Joli who owns St Paul's Bar, in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, believes the hospitality sector has been forgotten by politicians despite generating £59 billion for the UK economy in 2019.

He said: "Chancellor Rishi Sunak was invited to take part in a round table discussion with bosses from the hospitality sector and he refused and met American healthcare bosses instead. That says everything you need to know about this Government. I've heard so many bars and pubs have awful Decembers which normally pay for the quiet months after Christmas."

However, not all pubs have been empty. The Golden Lion, Fallings Park, is doing a roaring trade. A breakfast with Santa on Christmas Eve was sold out weeks before the event, bingo regularly has a full house and its New Year's Eve party is totally sold out.

Landlady of the Marston's pub, Anna Maragliano, said: "New Year's Eve sold out very fast and we've had to tell people not to attend unless they have purchased a ticket. We would also like to say a massive thank you for all our customers for their support over Christmas, it's been amazing."

The UK's biggest pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which has premises in Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Stourbridge, Halesowen, Bloxwich and Staffordshire, admitted the pandemic has been problematic for the hospitality sector.

Wetherspoons spokesman Eddie Gershon said: "It is no secret that the hospitality industry has been hit hard by Covid. However, people love visiting the pub and customers continue to enjoy themselves in our pubs.

Restaurants are battling staff shortages as well as fewer customers,with many forced to offer over-the-odds wage packages to chefs, who are in short supply.

The owner of a high end Indian restaurant, who did not want to be named, said: "We are just not seeing our old customers, people who would come regularly before lockdown have not come back.

"I really hope they feel safe to return soon. Our costs have gone up in the last year, especially staff wages and we need to start recouping it. We had a quiet December, which would normally make up for January but I suppose at least we are open, because this time last year we were closed for months."

Inconsiderate diners who book a table and then don't turn up or cancel are even more than a problem now that margins are tighter with fewer people coming through the doors.

Social clubs that were once at the centre of communities are also struggling, with memberships falling and fewer people willing to volunteer to run the none-for-profit institutions. More than 3,000 have closed since the turn of the century in the West Midlands alone. Reliant on an elder clientèle, the remaining social clubs have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Kishan Parmar took over Friar Park Social Club, in West Bromwich, four years ago and rebranded it as The Carrington Club.

However, the pandemic has been devastating.

Kishan said: "Business was booming in the first two months of 2020, we had really turned the place around and got rid of the negative reputation that had put people off from coming here.

"But these lockdowns have been awful. Our membership is the older generations and they seem to be too scared to come out because of Covid. Bookings for parties have dried up and I don't have a single one for next year."

Kishan added: "Prices of everything are rising too, I don't want to pass them on to our customers but it's hard."

"Christmas trade was really bad, meaning I've got a lot of stock left. Thankfully there has not been another lockdown so I can enjoy New Year's Eve as we are putting a party on.

"I need to stay positive and hopefully 2022 we will get back to normal."