Just days before the U.K. went into a nationwide lockdown in late March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood in front of a room full of television cameras and acknowledged the impact the shutdown would have on one of the country’s single greatest institutions.
“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub,” he said. “And I can understand how people feel about that.”
Beginning Saturday, the English will finally be able to exercise that most British of rights to “go down to the pub” again, as drinking establishments, restaurants and cinemas are permitted to reopen. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland set their own rules). It’s an opening the country’s tabloids have already dubbed “Super Saturday.”
But there’s a catch: with safety being so stressed, going out for a pint will likely not feel “super” at all.
Ahead of the reopening, Johnson is expected to urge pub goers “not to overdo it” and to drink responsibly— Britons have been ranked the world’s worst binge drinkers as recently as last year—while the head of the Metropolitan Police Federation in London likened the reopening to “policing New Year’s Eve.”
Meanwhile, U.K. government guidelines on pub-going offer a list of guidelines so byzantine they seem outright discouraging. In addition to bog-standard social distancing requirements, it includes rules on how many people a customer can socialize with at once: inside, it’s a group that no longer than two other households (yes, “households”); outside, up to five people from different households. You can meet with up to 30 people outside, but there’s a catch—the 30 must come from no more than two households. So, 28 people from two households plus a few friends would constitute an illegal gathering. (Are you following?)
That said, you can meet with an unlimited number of households throughout the day—just not all at once. However, such meetings should under no circumstances be a “party” or celebration of any kind, unless it is a wedding, in which case you can invite close friends and family. And while you’re there, keep it quiet: no singing, no shouting, chanting, or “conversing loudly,” which could cause an additional risk of infection, guidelines warn.
“This applies even if others are at a distance to you,” government advice notes.
However, you do not have to wear a mask, which is mandatory in England only on public transit.
Those restrictions have a geographic element, too. Pubs will not be open in Leicester—the central English city that is under lockdown after COVID-19 infections spiked—but the city’s suburbs and nearby towns will have pubs on offer.
What if you live in southern Scotland—where pubs are still closed—and fancy slipping south of the border for a pint? Don’t even think about it, said Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish National Party.
“And remember—and I’m sorry about this—but the five mile limit means you should not travel to pubs south of the border over this weekend,” Sturgeon warned Scots at a Wednesday news conference. “I know this will not be welcome news for people in these areas and I am genuinely sorry about that.”
The reopening, in fact, comes despite warnings by top scientists that the country risks loosening restrictions too quickly. Earlier this week, Sir Jeremy Farrar, a scientific advisor to the government, warned that England in particular was already on “knife’s edge” and risked a spike in infections in the coming weeks. The U.K. has seen worst outbreak in Europe, with 313,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported and nearly 44,000 deaths as of Tuesday.
That may mean that Brits do not actually want to go to the pub quite as much as politicians like Johnson assume, especially as concerns rise about local infection spikes and lockdowns, including the first such lockdown, in the city of Leicester.
The re-opening has also brought out that other English trait: morbid sarcasm.
“I think the pubs are opening because the government wants us drunk enough to think they are doing a good job,” tweeted novelist Matt Haig. Others joked the reopening should be called “Super Spreader Saturday.”
In fact, pollsters at Ipsos MORI found that 60% of Britons were not very comfortable, or comfortable at all, with going to a bar or restaurant as soon as they reopen.
The only things that made them slightly more uneasy were going to large public gatherings, like music festivals or sporting events—and using public toilets.
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