Will Britain’s pubs survive the coronavirus?

On May 14, the government announced a “pub task force” to investigate how pubs could reopen safely. But without an extension of government financial support and a tailored survival strategy, the pub industry could be facing permanent closures on an enormous scale. #NoPubNoRent and #NationalTimeOut, campaigns led by hospitality workers, are calling for pubs to be given rent breaks during the pandemic. Either way, pubs may continue to need financial support even as restrictions lift to ensure the security of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

This is the latest installment in the pub’s struggle. For as long as I can remember, pubs have been on the brink of survival. That one shut every week was common knowledge in the 2000s. The real picture is even bleaker: Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that almost 15,000 pubs shut between 2002 and 2019, an average of over 15 closures a week.

Before the coronavirus arrived, the biggest problem facing pubs was “pubcos,” large companies that own hundreds of pubs, rent the facilities to publicans — and charge hefty fees in the form of exclusive alcohol sales contracts, known in the industry as “wet rents.” These companies, which own about a third of all pubs in Britain, have helped squeeze out independent pubs. They are also known to flip pub properties for commercial and residential real estate.