Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to come out publicly in favour of a rethink of the compulsory 10pm closing time for pubs (see 4.09pm) must be of some concern to No 10. Given what Tory MPs feel about the rule, it is hard now to see how the government could win a vote on the issue.
Luckily, they don’t have to. New regional restrictions, like the ones announced today, are not subject to a prior vote in the Commons and the concession offered by ministers yesterday only promised prior votes on “significant national measures … where possible”.
But it would be surprising if someone did not find a way of engineering a vote on 10pm in the next few months. And, judging what Tory MPs were saying in the Commons this morning during Matt Hancock’s statement, government whips would find it a struggle to win a vote on the status quo. Opposition MPs were very critical too, but that was less surprising.
Several Tories complained that there was no justification for the 10pm rule. Greg Clark, the former business secretary who chairs the Commons science committee, said:
It does seem strange to think that concentrating trade in a smaller number of hours and making everyone leave a pub or restaurant at the same time, rather than spacing them out over the course of the evening, should suppress rather than spread the virus.
Lee Anderson was a bit blunter, asking Hancock to explain “to the staff and regulars at the New Cross how science has guided the decision to close pubs at 10pm”. Mike Wood also demanded evidence for the policy, saying Public Health England figures suggest just 3% of infections are linked to hospitality.
Philip Davies was strongly opposed to the rule on principle, describing it as part of “an arbitrary nanny-state socialist approach, which is serving no purpose at all, apart from to further collapse the economy and erode our freedoms”.
Several Tories expressed their opposition to the rule by suggesting revisions. Sir Desmond Swayne suggested curfews could be imposed locally, perhaps even on a pub by pub basis. Caroline Ansell also said measures should be localised. Jane Hunt suggested venues could be exempt if people were still eating a hot meal, to allow for second sittings. Jeremy Wright suggested hotel bars should be able to serve residents after 10pm.
Other Tories, including Paul Bristow, Lee Anderson, Andrew Jones and Karl McCartney, expressed their concern by asking for an assurance that the rule was being kept under review. Felicity Buchan, who represents Kensington in London, said 10pm was particularly inconvenient for her constituents. She said:
I have many residents who are only going out for the first time at 8.30 or 9, so do not fit into the idea of going to the pub at 6 o’clock.
And Tom Hunt asked for a review citing a particularly aggrieved landlord. He said:
Last weekend, I spoke to the landlord of the Belstead Arms in Chantry, who had to watch as many of his loyal customers, who would have been spending hundreds of pounds in his pub supporting the pub to recover from the previous lockdown, went to the off-licence across the street to buy beer from there. Will [Hancock] assure me that at the closest possible time he will review measures and ensure that pubs in Ipswich can stay open later?
Hancock repeatedly said the rule was being kept under review. In Whitehall-speak saying that a policy is under review can mean either that it genuinely is under review – or that it only notionally is, which means it isn’t. At first Hancock sounded like someone using the phrase in the latter sense, as a ritual fob-off, but by the end he may have concluded a real rethink will be necessary.