Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Government 'has split the pub industry' - Tommy Dignam

The decision for the second time not to allow pubs to open has more than upset the proprietor of one of Kilcullen's popular non-food pubs, Tommy Dignam of The Spout, writes Brian Byrne. He sees it as another 'foolish' decision by a 'weak' Government that may see the permanent loss of a fifth of the ordinary pubs in the country.

And he believes the Government-imposed 'split' of the pub industry by differentiating between those selling food and those that don't is simply shifting the customers from one to the other. "My customers are all drinking in pubs with food, for the entry price of a €9 meal," he says. "I don't blame the restaurants, but I do blame the Government for splitting our trade."

He is adamant that pubs like The Spout are as 'ready to go' as were the pub-restaurants when they were allowed reopen. "You can see what they have put in place, we can do the same. It doesn't make any difference that the customers are eating."

He wonders if there's an agenda led by the National Public Health Emergency Team, on whose advice the Government pointedly leans when announcing their decisions. "NPHET is anti-pub anyway, they always have been because they're in the health industry. They're calling the shots and the Government is falling in line because they are a weak Government. At the moment they can say they're following public health advice, and it takes the pressure off them."

Tommy also points to the way other groups are being treated differently in relation to actual Covid outbreaks. "A meat factory that might have 20 infections is closed for a week of deep cleaning, then can open again, but we're still not being allowed open at all. The numbers have gone up, but we have been closed, so we're not responsible for those numbers. But we're being made pay for them."

He's not convinced the Government are being straight with the pub trade either, when they hold out the hope that it might be allowed reopen at the end of the month. "They simply won't reopen the pubs at the same time as they bring the kids back to school, if they go back. I'm convinced it could even be next March or April before we get the go-ahead."

When The Spout closed in March, voluntarily before there was any official direction, eight staff were let go. They are all on the pandemic payment, as is Tommy Dignam himself. "But even though we're closed, I have €250-€300 a week going out of my account in ongoing costs of the pub. They expect me to live on less than €100 a week? It's getting to the stage that there'll soon be no money in that account. We were all hoping we'd get back to some kind of trading three weeks ago, but that hasn't happened."

Tommy is frank in saying that his pub will not survive unless the Government comes up with some kind of realistic support while they are closed. And he's not alone. "This will be the final straw for a lot of pubs. It's not an easy business anyhow, but I can see many owners figuring it's just not worth it to stay on."

Saying that up to 20pc of the 3,500 pubs currently still closed conceivably won't open again, Tommy figures that he would need two years of profitable trading just to recover the losses he has already suffered. "And I think it will be a long while before we're not trading at a loss. There may be a few weeks of good business after reopening because there will be a novelty factor, but then the atmosphere will be gone. No crowds, no music, no parties. Even if we opened in the next couple of months, I reckon we'd be trading at a loss until next summer."

He's not impressed with the supports so far put in place for pubs. "The wages subsidy scheme is no use to us if we're closed. They gave us grants to equal our rates, but the rates are still due and that money has already been eaten up."

Government should also get tough with the insurance industry, he says, and could help by forcing insurers to at least return the portion of premiums relating to public liability. "Even though we're closed, they have refused to refund us that. I was badly let down by my insurers ... though I had break in business insurance they refused to honour it. They said the pandemic wasn't covered."

He warns of a health time-bomb down the road because of the increase in home drinking. "Pubs are a controlled drinking environment, homes aren't. If you bring home a case of beer, you're going to drink it more quickly. If you open a bottle of wine, you'll drink that bottle in a sitting. A home measure of vodka is a lot bigger than a pub measure. There are a lot of people who are going to be sick, but that won't be seen for some time to come."

Meantime, his own mental health, and that of his family, is a real concern, as it is for many of his colleagues in the pub trade in similar situations. "It's a constant worry. I have the same bills I had before the lockdown. I have a mortgage, a family and children at school. I had worked really hard to get myself into a position where I owned my own business, and that has been taken from under me. My wife and kids were so upset watching the news last night, it's worrying them too."

That's some of what you don't hear from the daily Government Covid messaging in Clelia Murphy's soothing tones.

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