Pubs still crawling: Thousands of licensed premises still in limbo following ‘freedom-day’ – but is worst of the crisis behind the sector?

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More than 7,000 licensed premises have not yet returned after last month’s ‘freedom-day’, the latest Market Recovery Monitor from CGA and AlixPartners reveals.


According to the Market Recovery Monitor just under 5,000 of Britain’s licensed premises opened their doors again in July to bring the sector to more than nine tenths of its capacity. The wave of reopenings was partly triggered by ‘freedom day’ in England on 19 July, which allowed many venues, to trade for the first time since March 2020. Across Britain, 98,790 licensed premises were open by the end of July – 93 percent of the total known sites.

98.1 percent of food-led licensed premises were back trading by the end of July, compared to 91.4 percent of drink-led sites. The Market Recovery Monitor provides a review of hospitality’s site numbers over the course of the pandemic. Britain’s total licensed premises plunged by more than 9,000 between Spring 2020 and 2021 – 8.1 percent of the pre-COVID-19 total, and equivalent to one net closure every hour. However, total site numbers have edged up slightly in the last two months, indicating that confidence and investment in the sector are starting to return.

Karl Chessell, CGA’s business unit director for hospitality operators and food, EMEA, said: “Trading numbers are now at their highest point since COVID-19 hit, and a modest but steady flow of new venues suggest that the worst of the crisis may now be behind us. However, with so many sites yet to reopen, more business failures are inevitable. Thousands of businesses remain vulnerable, and their future will now depend on how well they can overcome major challenges such as the high debt levels many have. Consumers are returning to the sector and the pent-up demand is favourable, so getting through the early stages of the recovery is critical for these businesses.”

Graeme Smith, AlixPartners’ managing director, said: “Over 7,000 sites remain in limbo and the question now must be whether these venues will ever reopen under their current ownership or be lost permanently. The well-publicised challenges in the market around labour and product supply only add to a complex picture during what should be peak trading season, with operators across the country taking drastic action through reducing their hours or closing as a direct consequence of these issues.”

In associated news the CGA Tracker produced in conjunction with The Coffer Group and RSM, showed that Britain’s managed pub, restaurant and bar groups lifted sales back close to pre- COVID-19 levels in July.

The Tracker, shows total sales were 6 percent down on the same month two years ago in 2019. Restaurants had a particularly strong month, with sales only 2 percent below 2019, drink-led pubs and pub restaurants were down 9 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Domestic tourism contributed to a much better July for regions beyond London compared with the capital: sales outside the M25 were down by 2 percent year-on-year, but within the M25 they dropped 15 percent as visitor and worker numbers remained low.

July’s solid performance comes despite a host of challenges for hospitality businesses, including widespread staffing shortages relating to recruitment issues, the ‘pingdemic’, supply problems and the ongoing caution among some consumers. The Tracker also shows the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on hospitality, with rolling 12- month sales to the end of July 2021 down by 20 percent on the previous 12 months to July 2020 – a period which included the country’s first full national lockdown.

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