Tim Martin, the chairman of UK bar group J.D. Wetherspoon, has said his venues pose little risk of coronavirus to punters after 66 members of staff have test positive for the disease this year.
The group did not disclose which pubs had been affected, but said that 50 out of 811 sites had recorded coronavirus cases. The vast majority recorded one case, while two recorded four people had visited and tested positive for coronavirus.
There have been a total 66 positive tests for Covid-19 among Wetherspoon’s 41,564 employees.
Most of the reported cases have been mild or asymptomatic and 28 of the 66 employees have already returned to work, the company said, after self-isolating in accordance with medical guidelines. A spokesperson also told the drinks business that no pubs were closed after cases were registered, with staff from other venues drafted in to make up for those who had t stay at home.
The spokesperson added that staff who had to self isolate were “paid in full if not in work”.
The news comes as the UK government has tightened the country’s social distancing rules to make them easier for authorities to enforce. From today, gatherings in England are now restricted to no more than six people from multiple households by law, whereas in Scotland, groups of six can only come from a maximum of two households.
Hospitality groups will now also be forced to take customers’ contact details so that they can be notified if someone who visited a venue at the same time tests positive, and could be fined if they don’t The new rules were made public last week (9 September), to give businesses time to prepare.
Local governments are planning much stricter measures. Wales’ health minister, Vaughan Gething, listed some options available for action to be taken around pubs in Newport, which includes forcing them to close altogether.
Public Health Wales (PHW) said it was investigating following an increase in positive cases in the area.
In Ireland, the police have been given powers to shut down restaurants and bars that breach the rules, while pubs in Bolton, Greater Manchester, have gone back to takeaway and delivery services only following a local lockdown implemented this week.
Sir Mark Walport, the former chief scientific adviser, yesterday claimed the country was “on the edge of losing control” of the virus, as he urged people to work from home if they could.
Martin insisted that the risk of contracting the virus in a pub was “low” in a statement today. The group’s sales over the weekend were down 22.5% compared to the same time last year.
“It is clearly not the case that pubs are ‘dangerous places to be'”, he said.
Are pubs posing a risk?
Since England’s pubs were allowed to reopen on 4 July, some have already had to close again after customers later tested positive for Covid-19. At least three pubs in West Yorkshire, Burnham-on-Sea and Hampshire shut just three days after opening in July. All three had previously posted on social media about introducing new social distancing and health and safety measures in line with government guidelines.
Months later, a group of people who attended the Barrow Raiders beer garden – a venue set up by the Cumbrian town’s local rugby club to accommodate social distancing – were told to self isolate after an individual tested positive for the virus.
Three pubs in Glasgow, Scotland, closed within 24 hours over the weekend after recording positive cases.
But Martin said there have been more positive cases “at one farm in Hereford than at all Wetherspoon pubs- and over four times as many at one sandwich-making facility in Northampton.”
He pointed to a recent statement from Ian Ward, the leader of Birmingham City Council, which said the UK’s rising infection rate was “mainly due to social interactions, particularly private household gatherings”.
Hospitality venues, on the whole, have been encouraged to implement strict health and safety measures including collecting contact details of guests, implementing contactless ordering, and separating chairs and tables to keep groups at least one metre apart.
However, some have been better at this than others. Humphrey Smith, owner of Yorkshire brewery and pub chain Samuel Smith’s, has chosen not to implement a track and trace system at his venues despite government advice, while investigations by the Scottish Sunday Mail and Guardian found some Wetherspoon’s sites were also struggling to keep customers socially distanced from each other.
“If pubs are closed, or restricted so much that they become unprofitable, a great deal of the strenuous effort of the hospitality industry’s 3.2 million employees, currently engaged on upholding hygiene and social distancing standards, will be lost – leaving the public to socialise at home or elsewhere, in unsupervised circumstances,” Martin said.
“Although it is clearly possible for Covid-19 infections to take place in pubs and shops, the evidence indicates that the risk is low, provided social distancing and hygiene rules are followed, and common sense is used.”