Oxford’s pubs took a variety of approaches to re-opening on July 4th to ensure effective protection for staff and customers, but many are still yet to re-open.

Pubs that did open on July 4th did so with strict social distancing and track-and-trace measures in place. The Big Society on Cowley Road told pubgoers on Facebook that it would be operating with a table service only, with food ordered on your phone, a one-way system and hand sanitizers in place to keep customers safe.

Similar measures were in place at The Head of the River, which had been deep cleaned ahead of its reopening. Some pubs, such as The Punter and The Cowley Retreat, have decided to control numbers with a booking-only policy, meaning visitors need to make a reservation before popping out for a pint in the near future.

However, not all of Oxford’s chose 4th July to reopen. Publicans have had to balance the need to get sufficient safety measures in place with expected losses in revenue due to cautious customers and reduced capacity. Jericho’s The Old Bookbinders, which has kept in touch with regulars via online pub quizzes, will remain shut until the end of the month. According to its owners, the government’s announcement came simply too late for them to prepare to reopen sooner. The King’s Arms and the Angel and Greyhound, tied to Young’s, have both waited until 20th July to reopen, in line with a company policy to ensure all pubs can open responsibly.

Different pubs have expressed a range of opinions on re-opening and its implications. The operations manager of The Big Society, Tim Fitzgibbon, told The Oxford Mail, that though trade had been quieter, “90 per cent” of customers had embraced the new rules, and  that their new table ordering system had been a success. However, another pub with a different system told The Blue that their system “was a waste of time and money, frankly – much glitchier than the Wetherspoons one and as likely to deter customers as attract them.”

The Rusty Bicycle’s Dominic Simon was quoted by The Oxford Mail as being cautiously optimistic about his pubs’ new queuing system, which requires scanning a code before entering, in promoting both safety and ease of access, but that opening has been a “financial necessity”. By contrast, Steven Hay, manager of The Royal Blenheim, told The Blue that “part of Oxford’s allure” was that people from many different backgrounds could come and “mingle over a pint”, so it had been hard for many to lose that social hub during the lockdown. However, since “the health and wellbeing of staff obviously comes first”, the pub was taking a cautious approach to reopening to ensure the safest environment possible.

Students still in Oxford have had mixed experiences of newly reopened pubs. Many told The Blue that they were grateful not to be drinking at home for the first time in weeks. Kamran Ali, a second year studying French and Russian, commented that “Oxford pubs opening up has been practically a revival of the social lives of most Oxonians”. But another second year, said that returning to pubs was “still unsafe, and it’s a bit embarrassing that people would put having a pint before the safety of themselves and others.”

In the past decade, Oxford has seen a sharp decline in its number of pubs, Figures obtained by The Oxford Mail in 2018 showed that 15 pubs had closed in the city since 2010, leaving large areas on the city’s outskirts without a pub for the first time. However, this follows a national trend. Organisations such as the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) have estimated the number of pubs fell by 37.5 a week between 2016 and 2017 in the UK. This fall has been consistent for several decades: from 2000 to 2017, pub numbers in the UK declined by 12,450, or 20%, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) attributed this to a number of factors in a 2014 report. Regulations such as the 2007 smoking ban, economic factors such as the 2008 recession and increased taxation, and reduced alcohol consumption have all hampered the traditional business of Britain’s pub trade. Falling alcohol consumption has been shown to be particularly prevalent amongst 16 to 24-year olds, with 27% of that age group telling a 2016 survey that they were teetotal. 

Amongst those pubs that have reopened, some changes have been seen that are wider ranging than just those required by social distancing. The Trout Inn has had a large refurbishment whilst The Punter has converted to a fully vegan and vegetarian menu.