Saving lives is the first priority, but allowing people to enjoy life also matters
Letting people have social lives is a key aspect of revitalising an economy on its knees
It is easy to glibly reduce the social function of pubs as simply places of cheap booze and bar fights. Yet pubs serve a vital role far beyond that – they are sewn into the fabric of our cities and culture. Photograph: Getty Images
The late AA Gill once remarked that “food and pubs go together like frogs and lawnmowers”. He may well have been right. But unfortunately in an age of Covid-19 – thanks to rules that pubs must serve customers a “substantial meal” with their drinks – it’s time for frog to meet lawnmower, lawnmower to meet frog.
It is, however, for most punters a small price to pay for the return of some semblance of normalcy to their social lives. Zoom quizzes and socially distanced walks can be ditched for now with the pub’s triumphant return.
Yet this has not come without its fair share of backlash: scenes of a crowded Dame Lane in Dublin’s city centre – similar to images of Soho on a Saturday night in London – have prompted outrage at the Government prioritising the reopening of pubs over the likes of schools; and vitriol directed at the supposed laissez-faire attitude of everyone pictured.
It is true that the photos indicated what you might call a loose interpretation of social distancing, but beyond these there is little evidence to prove that the majority of customers, and the majority of pubs, did not adhere closely to Government guidelines.
It is easy to glibly reduce the social function of pubs as simply places of cheap booze and bar fights. Yet pubs serve a vital role far beyond that – they are sewn into the fabric of our cities and culture, they are the centre and lifeline of thousands of communities that have been closed off for months thanks to Covid-19, and they are places of history too.
The Canterbury Tales’ pilgrimage kicks off in a pub; Francis Crick announced the discovery of DNA in the Eagle in Cambridge in 1953; The Old Stand in Dublin was an alleged meeting place for Michael Collins and his men during the War of Independence.
The course forward is learning to live with Covid-19 as safely as possible, not hiding from it indefinitely
So the daily predictions of pubs in their legion being forced to shutter their doors for good, unable to cope with the economic burden of the pandemic, is troubling. And it is no secret that allowing them to operate now, even at a reduced capacity, is vital to their survival.
And those who have disparaged the policy of reopening pubs and restaurants from the beginning – deeming it too dangerous – could not delight in their vindication soon enough. As of Tuesday this week four pubs in England have closed almost immediately after reopening due to staff or punters testing positive for the virus. Like clockwork we were treated to the textbook sanctimony: “Who could have predicted this?” is their rallying cry. “Close down the pubs, restaurants and cafes in perpetuity”, their mission statement.
But it seems these detractors are missing a critical facet of the slow crawl away from full lockdown. That these pubs have closed down swiftly after learning of confirmed cases on their premises is a sign that the system is working.
It is becoming abundantly clear that eradicating the virus from the world in its entirety is likely impossible without a vaccine – and there is no clear timescale over when we might find one, if we find one at all.
So it seems, then, that it should be screamingly obvious that the course forward is learning to live with Covid-19 as safely as possible, not hiding from it indefinitely.
And that necessitates a functioning system of contact tracing, isolating, social distancing, and consumers making their own risk assessments on the dangers associated with eating out, drinking in pubs, and supporting the hospitality industry at large.
We should not forget something as crucial: allowing people to have their social lives back is not a frivolous concern
This is, of course, a tricky terrain to navigate from a policy perspective. It is too easy to view this question as a simple trade-off between protecting public health and salvaging a limping economy, as Stephen Bush frequently notes in the New Statesman. There is a dawning realisation that public health and the economy are not in fact separate and opposing forces, requiring a sacrifice of one for the benefit of the other, but in fact inextricable.
That is to make the obvious point that a nation burdened by sickness is not one that can work or spend to its full capacity. But also the often missed observation that those who perceive the health risks of going to a pub or a restaurant to be too great will simply stay at home, and not spend their money.
These are the hard questions for the new Government to face: how do you encourage consumers to spend time and money in these establishments – something that is critical to their survival – while a lethal and highly contagious virus could return in full force within a matter of weeks?
Yet amid this testy landscape we should not forget something as crucial: allowing people to have their social lives back is not a frivolous concern. Rather, it is something that is not only a key aspect of revitalising an economy on its knees, but also a fundamentally human question about realising where we derive enjoyment and happiness.
Saving lives is the first priority, but allowing people to live good ones – within reason, and with necessary safety precautions – matters too.