Is the North of England set to follow Scotland’s lead on closing pubs?

By Gareth Jones, Public Affairs

The government appeared to confirm speculation today that pubs and restaurants across the north of England would be facing closure, or at least severe restrictions, in the immediate future. Speaking to the media this morning, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick did not rule out pub closures and said that new measures to tackle coronavirus are to be announced “in the coming days”.

Yesterday, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon introduced new closures and restrictions on pubs and restaurants across the country’s central belt, covering Edinburgh and Glasgow, for a 16-day period starting Friday. As soon as this announcement was made, detailed plans for similar restrictions for the north of England, covering Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle, appeared in the media, with speculation that an announcement would be made by the weekend and take effect on Monday. This announcements are expected to unveiled alongside plans to implement a three-tier lockdown system that was trailed last week.

Unlike the first time pubs were forced to close back in March, the measures which have been trailed over the past 24 hours do not appear to have political consensus. In fact, the news has prompted a furious backlash from local mayors, local authority leaders and backbench MPs in the north of England. This is partly due to the fact that many local leaders have felt they have been kept in the dark about plans, with Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester tweeting “No discussion. No consultation. Millions of lives affected by Whitehall diktat.” There is also widespread concern about the economic damage these new restrictions will bring, which could have political consequences. The hospitality industry has been highly vocal about these measures – with the boss of Greene King warning that these measures will lead to permanent closures. 

Despite this backlash, however, the government will feel it has no choice but to implement these tough restrictions. There is now clear evidence that existing local measures have not done enough to contain the virus in these regions and the government has stated objective to “prioritise education and employment” – meaning schools and other workplaces will remain open, so there are few other options available to them other than tough restriction on hospitality venues. This may make sense from a public health point of view, but politically, it will leave the government battling opponents on multiple fronts. It will also mean a potential baptism of fire for the government’s new press secretary, Allegra Stratton, who was announced this afternoon. Stratton, who previously served as the former editor of ITV News and the communications adviser to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, will now be leading the Downing Street press briefings.