'Britain's inalienable right': How the pub is being brought to you

Takeaways, the 'fourth emergency service' and a wine float demonstrate how pubs are adapting their business to a lack of customers

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Despite the Prime Minister’s claims that the British possess an “ancient, inalienable right to go to the pub”, he nonetheless saw fit to shut their doors for the foreseeable future. With necessity becoming the mother of invention, many publicans up and down the land are conjuring up novel ways to keep their businesses afloat and the flame of community spirit burning brightly.

“We’re looking at introducing a McDonalds-style drive through,” Daniel Nixon told The Telegraph. He is the publican of the Norfolk Lurcher, a small establishment in the rural village of Colton. “After last Monday’s announcement it all went a bit Pete Tong for us. We’re pretty remote so we were trying to work out what to do.”

For many, delivering to their customers is the only way to ensure some money keeps coming in so the lights can be turned back on when the shadow of coronavirus passes: 161 Food and Drink in south-east London has recreated the classic ‘milk round’, but replaced the milk with something a little stronger.

“We are now doing free wine deliveries to all SE London postcodes!” proclaims the wine bar’s Instagram page. Tom Wykes, who imports wine for the bar, conjured up the idea in order to adapt to these unprecedented times. “We have a large customer base around south-east London, so the idea was to create a kind of home delivery, isolation service. We're calling it a milk round, in the sense that we're going to be dropping the wines to your door - it'll just be in a car, but calling it a milk float has a ring to it.”

Other outlets have seized on the idea. Bristol Beer Factory is offering home delivery on all its beers, while The Dorset in Lewes, Sussex has put together a ‘pub takeaway kit’ of three snacks and five bottles of Budweiser. The Frank & Bird chain in Newcastle have called their delivery set up the ‘fourth emergency service’ and have also begun setting up live conference calls for their regulars so that the pub atmosphere can be recreated in everyone’s home.

The 12-month licence for all pubs to operate as takeaways given by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is vital to keep cash flow going. But confusion still remains as to whether the public are allowed to come and collect the food and alcohol from the pub. Many pubs simply do not have the capacity to launch their own delivery service.

The Major, in Ramsbottom near Bury, prepared and offered to deliver Sunday lunch to those in the local community, but following the Prime Minister’s announcement on March 23, had to abandon the scheme for the future and close: “We’ve had to close our doors so financially [there’s] nothing we can do. It’s all about staying in touch with our customers and keeping up community spirit.”

The inability to provide deliveries is understandable. Most pubs do not have the infrastructure or the income required to cover the costs. In Norfolk, Daniel Nixon knows that the burden of a delivery service would be unfeasible in his rural community: “We can’t really do the delivery option as the fuel cost would likely negate everything. The McDonald’s-style drive through system would work: pay at one window, collect at the next.” 

This idea is in fact in keeping with government guidelines. Provided the publican introduces crowd-control measures, ensures no member of staff goes within two metres of a customer and the food or drink ordered is not consumed on site, then pubs are permitted to stay open for trade.

But for many, this is simply not enough. Some pubs have defied government advice and chosen to keep their doors open to punters. Riot police were called to a Cheers pub in Inverclyde over the weekend, as it defied the government’s orders to close, while there are multiple reports from counties across the north of England of pubs staging lock-ins. Pubs that chose to defy risk losing their licence permanently. It's a high price to pay; and so too is endangering their customers' health.