On Tuesday 23rd June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a further lifting of the lockdown in England, exactly three months after it was first imposed. Johnson announced the reduction of physical distancing from 2 metres to ‘1 metre-plus’ and confirmed that a wide range of hospitality venues, including pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, and hotels, will be allowed to open from Saturday 4th July. Labour leader Keir Starmer stated his cautious support for the plans, and highlighted that he believed the government ‘is trying to do the right thing.’
In a poll conducted two days after these measures were announced, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked 2000 members of the UK public whether they thought lockdown measures are being relaxed too slowly, at the right pace, or too quickly. 49% of the public stated they believed the government was relaxing measures too quickly. Overall, just 31% think that lockdown is being lifted at the right pace. A small minority of 13% think that the government is still relaxing measures too slowly, despite Tuesday’s announcement. 2019 Conservative voters are evenly split on the issue, with 41% thinking that lockdown is being lifted too quickly, and a further 41% believing government is acting at the right pace. In the northern areas of England, which is the current epicentre of the virus in the country, clear majorities think that England is moving out of lockdown too quickly
The primary reason the Government has given for lifting the lockdown to such an extent from the 4th July is their concerns that a continued lockdown will significantly damage the UK economy. As many people were unable to work during the lockdown, the government created the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on personal finances. The programme currently supports 8.9 million workers, more than a quarter of the UK workforce, and the cost so far has reached £19.6 billion.
The UK furlough scheme was originally intended to last until the end of July, but has now been extended until the end of October. Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked the public about when they believed that the government should stop the programme. A number of possible options were provided, and a slight plurality (24%) stated that they though the scheme should cease at the end of October, as planned. Nevertheless, 55% of the public believe the scheme should be stopped at an earlier point: 13% would be in favour of the lockdown ending now, 19% believe it should end at the end of July, 16% feel it should end at the end of August and 7% want it to end at the end of September. Just 9% of the population are in favour of it extending past October to the end of the year. Interestingly, 2019 Labour supporters are slightly more in favour (27%) of the Government’s current schedule than 2019 Conservative voters (23%).
Although the Government has committed to supporting employers in paying employee wages until the end of October, the hope is that many businesses which are re-opening their doors from the 4th July will no longer need to rely on the scheme. A significant aspect of lockdown lifting is the re-opening of the UK’s hospitality sector. A crucial part of the sector is the country’s pubs, as the number of pubs in the UK is around 39,000, and pubs employed over 450,000 people in 2019. Although many of these employees will currently be on furlough, a rapid return to pub-going habits across the UK population will enable establishments to re-employ all their staff, and pay their wages, taking the burden off the government. In addition, the government has also announced that employers will be able to agree to a part-time working pattern for employees from 1 July, meaning employees can agree to work a few days per week, yet still receive furlough pay for the reminder. It may be the case that many in the hospitality industry, given the shift nature of work, begin to return to employment through this method.
It is clear, however, that the public remain wary about returning to pubs. When we asked the public whether they will visit a pub within the first week of re-opening, a strong majority of 72% said they wouldn’t. Less than one in five people (18%) believe they will visit a pub between the 4th and the 11th July. Younger people are clearly keener on returning to pubs: Just 58% of 18-24 year olds and 57% of 25-34 year olds do not intend to visit in the first week. Pubs which rely on older customers may be less successful, as 83% of 65+ people, (who are more at risk of the coronavirus) state they will not return to a pub in the week following the 4th July.
The reluctance of the public to return to pubs is likely to be tied to their views about how safe pubs are. 62% of the public would not feel safe going to a pub in July, and just 24% would.14% of the public don’t know if it will be safe.Clear majorities across all age demographic breakdown think pubs will be unsafe, even among younger respondents. The public’s clear understanding about the dangers of the coronavirus, and unwillingness to risk catching it, will be the biggest obstacle the hospitality industry has to overcome, especially as there remains a relatively high number of new daily cases in the UK compared to other countries. It is clear that pubs, and other businesses which traditionally thrive on social contact and crowded interiors, will have to work hard upon re-opening to persuade many people it will be safe for them to return, which reduces the likelihood of an immediate ‘V shaped’ economic recovery. However, pubs with outdoor spaces, including beer gardens, terraces, pavements and car parks, will be hoping that they can benefit from relaxed planning laws and attract a public which feel more comfortable outside.
Overall, it is clear from our polling this week that the UK public remains very cautious. Nearly half of the public (49%) stated that they believe the government is lifting lockdown too quickly, and a majority believe that pubs will be unsafe to visit. Despite these current figures, it may be the case (and the hospitality industry will hope) that people’s attitudes shift quickly as their friends and colleagues return. As the new measures come into force from next month, Redfield & Wilton Strategies will continue to monitor the public’s attitudes to coronavirus policy.