Some may feel that 4.15pm is a little early in the day to kick off an evening’s drinking. But the pub sector desperately needs our support after the devastation wrought by the Covid pandemic — and we Utleys have never been ones to shirk our public duty. Not where alcohol consumption is required of us, anyway.

So it was that, at a quarter past four on Wednesday, I presented myself at our local and asked the lovely Maddie behind the bar for a pint of Wandle bitter, brewed a couple of miles away in South London.

It turned out to be a somewhat more complicated transaction than I’d become used to, in those far-off days before the pandemic turned our lives upside-down.

Some may feel that 4.15pm is a little early in the day to kick off an evening's drinking. But the pub sector desperately needs our support after the devastation wrought by the Covid pandemic — and we Utleys have never been ones to shirk our public duty. Not where alcohol consumption is required of us, anyway (File image)

Some may feel that 4.15pm is a little early in the day to kick off an evening's drinking. But the pub sector desperately needs our support after the devastation wrought by the Covid pandemic — and we Utleys have never been ones to shirk our public duty. Not where alcohol consumption is required of us, anyway (File image)

Some may feel that 4.15pm is a little early in the day to kick off an evening’s drinking. But the pub sector desperately needs our support after the devastation wrought by the Covid pandemic — and we Utleys have never been ones to shirk our public duty. Not where alcohol consumption is required of us, anyway (File image) 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As regular readers may recall, I’d intended to be first in the queue at our local a fortnight ago, as soon as the Covid restrictions were relaxed. But, alas, my pub remained shut.

So I went to another, half a mile down the road, to celebrate the easing of the lockdown with my first pint of proper beer since mid-March. There, to my horror, I was charged a credit-card-melting £5.75 for a pint of inferior bitter.

I resolved on the spot that I’d wait for my next pint until the grand reopening of our local, where the landlord’s business model doesn’t rely on extortion.

Delight

(I notice, by the way, that on yesterday’s Letters page, a reader from Doncaster complains his favourite haunt has increased the price of a pint from £2.04 to £3. And he thinks he’s being ripped off!)

Which brings me back to this Wednesday afternoon, when I walked the dog down the hill — and saw, to my delight, that our local had reopened at last.

Inside, there were four staff members but not a single customer (although I later found a handful smoking in the garden when I, too, slipped out for a cigarette). At least this meant I wouldn’t have to wait for my drink. Or so I thought.

I sanitised my hands by the door, as instructed, and went up to the bar where I asked Maddie for my pint.

‘Sorry,’ she said through her mask, ‘it’s table service only now.’

Obediently, I sat down at one of the dozen tables in the room, all of them empty, and repeated my request. ‘Could I have a pint of Wandle, please, Maddie?’

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to go to our website and download the app.’ She explained that this was to enable contact tracing, so that I could be instructed to self-isolate if it turned out that anyone sitting near me in the (empty) pub tested positive for the virus.

My heart sank. Electronic technology just doesn’t seem to like me — and the feeling is entirely mutual.

Sure enough, my efforts to locate and download the app came to nothing. After struggling for an age, I pleaded with Maddie for help. Bless her, she came over and pressed all the right links on my mobile, with the practised fingers of youth.

I can’t swear that we remained two metres apart, or even ‘one metre plus’, as we would have done if I’d been allowed to order at the bar. But I can’t blame Maddie. She doesn’t make the rules.

I tapped on a pint of Wandle (£4.86) and set about entering my details — name, telephone number, email, create password, credit card number, security code, table number… At long last, 20 minutes after I’d walked into that empty pub, the message came up: ‘Order accepted!’

Maddie went straight back to the bar, pulled my pint and brought it over to my table. Oh, the absurdity of bureaucracy!

Ah, well, I suppose we must get used to what we’re all sick of hearing is to be the ‘new normal’.

Hijack

There is no annoyance in life, however, that politicians can’t strive to make worse. Sure enough, a cross-party group of anti-smoking fanatics at Westminster is hatching a conspiracy to make visiting the pub even less appealing to regulars than it is today, with all those inflated prices and new restrictions.

Led by Baroness Northover of the inaptly named Liberal Democrats (the least liberal and least democratic of the three main parties, with its love of statism and the EU), the group’s plan is to hijack an emergency Bill intended to allow pubs, cafes and restaurants more open-air service during the pandemic.

Under her ladyship’s proposed amendment to the Business and Planning Bill, which comes before Parliament next week, pubs will be allowed to set tables on pavements, or in car parks, only on the strict condition that they ban smoking altogether, inside or out.

If we’re to believe Lady Northover — and, frankly, I find that extremely difficult — her purpose is to revitalise the hospitality sector, not to keep people away.

Led by Baroness Northover (pictured) of the inaptly named Liberal Democrats (the least liberal and least democratic of the three main parties, with its love of statism and the EU), the group's plan is to hijack an emergency Bill intended to allow pubs, cafes and restaurants more open-air service during the pandemic

Led by Baroness Northover (pictured) of the inaptly named Liberal Democrats (the least liberal and least democratic of the three main parties, with its love of statism and the EU), the group's plan is to hijack an emergency Bill intended to allow pubs, cafes and restaurants more open-air service during the pandemic

Led by Baroness Northover (pictured) of the inaptly named Liberal Democrats (the least liberal and least democratic of the three main parties, with its love of statism and the EU), the group’s plan is to hijack an emergency Bill intended to allow pubs, cafes and restaurants more open-air service during the pandemic

As she put it in a Lords debate on Monday: ‘Over 85 per cent of people don’t smoke. There is a public health issue here, but also the issue of making pubs and restaurants appealing to the vast majority of people.’

To that, all I can say is that either she seldom visits a pub — and her CV suggests she has been far too busy sitting on do-gooder committees to spare much time for such pleasures — or she believes that any dishonesty is acceptable if it promotes the cause of stopping everyone from smoking, anywhere at all.

After all, if you ask licensees whether Tony Blair’s 2007 ban on smoking indoors was good or bad for trade, in nine cases out of ten they’ll say the effects were wholly negative. What is indisputable is that in the first ten years after the ban came into force, more than 20 per cent of pubs nationwide were forced to close.

To be sure, there may have been other factors involved, such as the credit crunch and the beer tax hikes. But you’d have to be blinkered or bonkers to believe that the smoking ban attracted customers, rather than turning them away.

Indeed, if Lady Northover’s amendment gets through — and, please God, there is little chance of that — I’ll bet you it’ll turn out to be yet another nail in the coffin of the good old British pub, at the very moment when millions of jobs depend on bringing it back to life.

Malign

As for the supposed risk to non-smokers, forced to drink at tables outside where others are puffing away, I’m prepared to believe passive smoking in confined spaces may be damaging to health, particularly in young children. But evidence of its malign effects in the open air is effectively non-existent.

As for the supposed risk to non-smokers, forced to drink at tables outside where others are puffing away, I'm prepared to believe passive smoking in confined spaces may be damaging to health, particularly in young children. But evidence of its malign effects in the open air is effectively non-existent (File image)

As for the supposed risk to non-smokers, forced to drink at tables outside where others are puffing away, I'm prepared to believe passive smoking in confined spaces may be damaging to health, particularly in young children. But evidence of its malign effects in the open air is effectively non-existent (File image)

As for the supposed risk to non-smokers, forced to drink at tables outside where others are puffing away, I’m prepared to believe passive smoking in confined spaces may be damaging to health, particularly in young children. But evidence of its malign effects in the open air is effectively non-existent (File image) 

Certainly it’s nothing to worry about when it’s seen in the perspective of Covid (a disease to which, as highlighted in these pages by the great David Hockney, smokers appear mysteriously to be less vulnerable than others; even the NHS and the British Heart Foundation now admit that the evidence is ‘mixed’).

There’s something else you can be sure of, too: if Lady Northover’s amendment gets through, this will be no temporary measure, to be abandoned when the summer panic ends — and when, once again, the only people gathered outside pubs will be nicotine addicts like me.

A precedent will have been set — and, before you know it, smoking in any public space will be outlawed permanently. Bit by bit, our freedom to live as we choose is eaten away by politicians who assure us they are thinking only of our own good.

Yes, I know smoking is terribly bad for me (whatever protection it may offer from Covid-19). I know, too, some people loathe it, and I’m always careful to show them consideration, particularly when they’re eating. Meanwhile, I applaud the one million who are said to have given up since the lockdown began. All I can say is that they’re much stronger willed than I.

But please, Lady Northover, don’t insult our intelligence by pretending you’re trying to save my beloved pubs. As you’d know very well if you understood pub culture, you’re helping to kill them.

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