Preston's pubs and clubs prepare for New Year's Eve celebrations - here's what some of them are expecting and their hopes for 2022
Of the many uncertainties that faced Preston’s hospitality industry last New Year's Eve, there was one depressing definite.
Venues in the city knew well in advance that they would not be welcoming customers on what, in pre-pandemic times, would have been one of their busiest nights of the year.
With Lancashire under Tier 3 restrictions for much of December 2020 - rules that were ratcheted up even further just a couple of days before the end the year - there was no prospect of restaurants, pubs, bars or clubs opening their doors to help see off a truly miserable 12 months for operators and patrons alike.
Fast forward a year and - with Omicron looming large over the festive period - it was only after Christmas that the sector was told for certain that it would not be subject to some form of restrictions for the second New Year’s Eve running.
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Although the government has urged people to party with caution, venues and their guests have effectively been given the green light for what, in theory, should be an end-of-year celebration vaguely reminiscent of the revelling which was once taken for granted.
However, if that sounds like something approaching normality, then Paul Butcher, landlord of the Stanley Arms in Preston city centre, is on hand with a reality check.
While he welcomes not having had to “scrabble around” to implement special measures at short notice for tonight, he says that the current environment remains a daunting one in which to operate a business like his - because some people are choosing to stay away no matter what ministers have to say on the subject.
“I’ve forgotten what normal is,” Paul laughs, reflecting on 21 months during which hospitality has been subject to disruption on a scale he never dreamed possible.
“Although nobody has come out and directly said, ‘Avoid pubs and bars’, the general government advice is certainly to be careful, protect yourselves - and don't go meeting with a lot of other people.
“We are in a similar position to before the first lockdown really – if you are in an industry which guidelines are pretty much [saying] to avoid, then you are going to experience a big downturn through no fault of your own.
“The food side of our business has really dropped away recently. We’re still getting a few people coming in, but nowhere near as many as we’d usually see in the Christmas period.
“The evening crowd has been good, whereas the daytime crowd has just melted away. We've also had parties cancel and numbers drop for the parties we have had.”
Against that backdrop, Paul believes that New Year’s Eve, which would usually equate to a Saturday’s trade - irrespective of the day on which it actually fell - will this year be more akin to a Thursday or Friday.
While he hopes that the evening will at least prove “so-so” in terms of the number of punters coming through the door, he also understands from personal experience the reluctance of some to venture out to venues that they would have relished visiting pre-Covid.
“I went down to see my folks and a few people [suggested] going to the pub. And then [someone says] ‘Hang on, let's not’ - just because of everything that’s going on."
Sue Culshaw, managing director of the company that runs live music venue The Ferret on Fylde Road and The Continental pub and restaurant on South Meadow Lane, has experienced a similar sentiment amongst her clientele in recent weeks.
However, while some Christmas party bookings have been cancelled - in one instance at the insistence of an office boss - she says that the biggest problem that her operation has faced is a practical one caused by the explosion in Covid cases.
“Everybody has been getting the virus - from staff to the bands [due to perform].
“The Ferret just operates as a venue now, not a [standalone] bar - so if there is nothing on, we can't open.
“We’ve had about four staff off with Covid at any one time at The Ferret and then others are isolating, waiting for PCR tests to come back, because they have been working with somebody [who has been infected] - although they have then come back negative,” Sue says.
It is a picture of near operational paralysis that Paul Butcher also recognises from his Lancaster Road pub, which he recently closed as a precaution because of the circumstances in which one staff member tested positive.
“You don't want to give it to your customers, but I also don't want [other] members of staff to go off [with the virus] the next week.
“As hospitality workers, Covid is in the post for us – we can’t work from home and it's very difficult for us to [distance] effectively. As everybody knows, after three or four pints, customers don't care about social distancing - and, at the moment, we haven't even been told [by the government] to socially distance.”
It is the vagaries of running a venue during a pandemic that Paul says make it vital that the government provides ongoing support to the hospitality sector.
“It’s affecting all hospitality – from [businesses in] villages to big cities. We’re not necessarily after handouts – but a drop in VAT to 12.5 percent on drinks sold over the bar would be a big help. [Other VAT] rates have been reduced.
“As businesses, we’re paying full tax, but have half the customers coming in – so then my staff have their hours cut. Everyone is getting hit and you're not usually talking about high earners or people with a load of savings they can fall back on.
“We’ll always do our bit for the public good and if that means we do get shut [for a temporary period], then fine - but we're going to need a little bit of help to pay staff and bills,” Paul says.
Earlier this month, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a new £1bn Covid business support package, which includes grants of up to £6,000 for bars and restaurants hit by the effects of the Omicron surge.
Preston BID [Business Improvement District] manager Mark Whittle says that the money needs to make its way to the outlets that need it within the next fortnight to help see them through what, even in normal times, is a lean January period. He also welcomed the fact that no new restrictions had been brought in this side of the new year.
“One of the challenges for businesses during the festive period has been the uncertainty of impending restrictions, which has understandably given rise to a confidence wobble from consumers up and down the country.
“Businesses, both in retail and hospitality, now at least have some clarity and the opportunity to press ahead with their new year plans - but festive trade will have been hampered by ongoing news of Omicron cases which leads to a reduction in visitor numbers.
“We’d ask people who intend to see in the new year in a bar, pub, or restaurant, that they enjoy themselves safely and support city centre venues when making their plans.
“Preston’s business community will, as they have done throughout the pandemic, do everything asked of them to keep people as safe as possible,” Mark added.
Meanwhile, Sue Culshaw sees this new year less as the clear-cut start of the bright new future we might all dream of - but more like a staging post to what she hopes will at least be better times ahead for hospitality businesses and their customers.
“I've not found new year in Preston to be particularly well-attended for a few years even before the pandemic - I think people tend to stay in and have a house party.
“So we are just doing something low key at The Ferret and The Conti, but we wanted it to go ahead because we need to feel some sort of normality and consistency.
“People want to start [the year] optimistically and I think the fact that we aren't having to shut is good, because it does mean we can try to keep the morale up and keep people coming in - and hopefully it will pick up in the new year.
“It’s just important that we keep going,” Sue reflects.
PUBLIC URGED TO PROTECT THEMSELVES AND OTHERS AS CASES SURGE
Lancashire's public health boss has appealed to residents with any Covid symptoms - including those associated with the new Omicron variant - not to risk mixing for new year celebrations.
Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi urged people with even mild symptoms to do the right thing and self-isolate. He also said those without any reason to believe they have Covid should nevertheless test themselves before meeting up with others.
His message comes as the latest figures show that case numbers more than doubled in most council areas in the week up to Christmas Eve, compared to the rolling weekly figure seven days earlier.
West Lancashire, Wyre and Chorley saw the biggest increases in Lancashire at 162, 137 and 134 percent respectively. In South Ribble, the figure was 117 percent, while Preston's increase stood at 92 percent.
Across Lancashire as a whole, there were 16,621 confirmed Covid cases in the week to 24th December - a case rate of 1,140 per 100,000 people.
South Ribble and Chorley have the highest such rates in the county - 1,422 and 1,409 respectively.
Dr Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council's director of public health, said: "As we welcome in the new year, we know people may want to celebrate with family, friends and loved ones.
“We are seeing a rapid increase in cases here in Lancashire and even a small percentage needing hospital treatment will add pressure on our local NHS services.
"There are a few simple steps people can take to help stop the spread. Take a lateral flow test before catching up with people, wear a mask where possible and remember your routine of hands, face, space and fresh air.
“If you have a temperature, cough, loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, or the new Omicron symptoms which include a runny nose, sore throat and a headache - no matter how mild - you need to isolate as quickly as possible. It is the right and safe thing to do.
“If you haven’t yet had your vaccination or booster, now is the time to book. There has already been a great uptake, and more appointments are available despite this still being the festive season," Dr. Karunanithi said.
>>> Click here to see how Covid rates increased in Central Lancashire in the run-up to Christmas