In a normal year in the run-up to Christmas, Glen Duckett, landlord of the award-winning Eagle + Child in Ramsbottom, would be accompanying five or six of his staff on a trip to Angoulême in France, an annual culinary excursion he introduced as part of an apprenticeship scheme. Back at the pub, the team would be gearing up for festive gatherings, designing special menus, preparing turkeys and digging the Christmas decorations out of the cellar.
But this year is anything but normal. The Eagle will still twinkle with fairy lights, but it won’t be open this Christmas. When lockdown in England ends on 2 December, the pub, near Bury in Greater Manchester, will return to tier 3, only this time the restrictions will be more severe.
In total, 38,000 hospitality venues will fall under tier 3 in England from 3 December – representing 20% of trade. All of them will remain closed except for providing pre-ordered takeaways, a move the trade body UKHospitality described as “unfair and arbitrary”.
As well as a bar and a restaurant serving “pub classics with a sharp edge”, the Eagle has five bedrooms decked out in designer furniture. Since Duckett took over in 2011 he has won numerous awards, among them UK pub of the year in 2017 and, in January 2020, publican of the year. This week he added another accolade to the trophy cabinet – a community impact award in recognition of his commitment to local projects such Men’s Shed and Growing Resilience, which support people suffering from poor mental health.
The pub operates as a social enterprise and has helped 130 marginalised young people into work. “I took it on as a boarded-up pub to prove the model would work,” said Duckett.
The awards are heartening, proof not just that the model is viable but that the business is thriving. But the success of the pub makes its forced closure all the more galling. Under tier 3 rules, the Eagle will continue to offer accommodation to key workers and professionals who can’t get home. But keeping the rooms open for a small number of guests barely begins to compensate for eight months of little or no trading.
Back in the summer, when large parts of the country were flocking to the beach and making the most of the “eat out to help out” scheme, Greater Manchester was the first region to be placed under local lockdown. The rules came into force on 30 July and the region has been under restrictions ever since.
Despite the challenges, Duckett and his team continued to throw themselves into community work. The pub joined Eat Well Manchester, a collective set up in the early days of the first lockdown by chef Mary Ellen McTague to provide chef-made meals to key workers and people in challenging circumstances. The Eagle supplied 1,000 meals during the first lockdown; for the past month they’ve been turning out 60 meals a week.
Duckett was optimistic that he would be able to trade after 2 December, after seeing positive test rates decline in the region. Hopeful, he took on three new apprentices in anticipation of a busy Christmas period, and planned a wine-pairing menu in partnership with a local wine shop on the assumption that he would be able to host groups of six indoors over the festive season. The news of a return to tier 3, possibly until spring, has come as a hammer blow.
“We’re basically staying in lockdown,” he said. “We’ll lose tens of thousands of pounds. It puts the business in a very vulnerable position. We still have to pay bills, even when we’re closed.”
His only option is to continue providing a delivery service. The situation is, he believes, “immoral”.
“In a well-managed site that’s undergone a risk assessment, you are safer than in a supermarket where you can’t control people and there is no test and trace. Everyone will be able to pile into the Trafford [shopping] Centre, yet we have to remain closed.”
His frustrations echo those of hospitality businesses across the country. “We still have not seen any evidence that hospitality venues – which have invested great time, effort and money in making their spaces Covid-secure – are a problem area in terms of infection,” said UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls. “So it seems unfair and arbitrary that hospitality is being dealt such a harsh hand.”
Overall 98% of hospitality trade will come under tiers 2 or 3, which, according to UKHospitality, will wipe out £7.8bn compared with last year if the restrictions last all of December.
“I’m only one employer but there are now three young, vulnerable people who are not starting their jobs because of what I feel is an inept system,” said Duckett. “They are playing games with people’s livelihoods.”