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NI bars and restaurants brace for three more months of Covid lockdown... hospitality counts the cost as infections remain high


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Willie Jack hopes pubs like Duke of York can reopen some time after Easter

Willie Jack hopes pubs like Duke of York can reopen some time after Easter

Willie Jack hopes pubs like Duke of York can reopen some time after Easter

FORGET about having a St Patrick's Day pint because Northern Ireland's pubs will not open until the middle of April at the earliest.

That is the depressing news coming from Stormont sources and hospitality bosses, who will be counting the cost of the coronavirus crisis until after the Easter holidays.

With Northern Ireland recording another 22 Covid-19 deaths and 705 new infections yesterday, bar and restaurant owners are bracing themselves for a further three months of lockdown.

Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill admitted: "It is hard to see anything open hospitality-wise before St Patrick's Day."

Willie Jack, the owner of Belfast's famous Duke of York and Harp Bar, went even further, saying: "The earliest we will be open is the week after Easter, and I'm optimistic about that date due to the vaccine, but it will be limited."

With virus infections still worryingly high throughout Northern Ireland sources on the Executive say it will be months rather than weeks before hospitality reopens.

Mapping being considered by ministers will see schools reopen following the February half-term holidays, non-essential shops in March, restaurants around the beginning of April, and non-food pubs after the Easter break. However, this is entirely dependent on current infection levels being dramatically reduced and maintained for a period of time.

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Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster (Brian Lawless/PA)

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster (Brian Lawless/PA)

Colin Neill says the current lockdown, which his members agreed to with a "heavy heart", is wreaking havoc on the industry.

He explained: "Hospitality is being used unfairly as a controllable risk to balance out uncontrollable risks like house parties.

"With a heavy heart we agreed to the latest lockdown, which comes with a high price with businesses never reopening and jobs lost.

"It is now 299 days since Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown and non-food pubs have been open on just 23 of those days.

"This comes against a backdrop of pub and restaurant owners introducing the most effective coronavirus preventive measures out of any business in Northern Ireland."

What most hospitality bosses agree on is an end to the stop-start measures witnessed last year, where they were allowed to open for a period before being closed at short notice.

Willie Jack managed to avoid falling into this trap, having brought the shutters down last March on the Duke of York and Harp Bar, which sit at the heart of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.

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Willie Jack inside an empty Duke Photo by Kelvin Boyes  / Preseye

Willie Jack inside an empty Duke Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Preseye

Willie Jack inside an empty Duke Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Preseye

He had hoped to reopen the day after St Patrick's Day, but concedes that will not be possible.

"I had hoped to re-open on March 18, just after St Patrick's Day, but that is never going to happen now," Willie told Sunday Life.

"The earliest we will be open is the week after Easter, and I'm optimistic about that date due to the vaccine, but it will be limited.

"It will be on a quiet day midweek, and maybe just in the afternoon. It will not be like when the pubs reopened on a Friday last July, which was madness."

Willie's pubs are famous for live music, something he agrees will be a memory until at least the summer when most adults in Northern Ireland will have received the Covid-19 vaccine.

He added: "The Duke of York and Harp Bar are live music venues and it will be June or July before we even contemplate getting back to that.

"When we do reopen we plan to do it permanently and not have that stop-start nonsense we saw last year with pubs open for a few weeks then shut again."

Although the vaccine offers hope on the horizon for devastated hospitality workers, Willie doubts things will return to normal anytime soon.

He added: "I'm sceptical that we will ever see a return to how things were in the Cathedral Quarter with bars and restaurants packed.

"I'm trying not to be negative, but I do worry we won't be able to get back to that, certainly not until most of the population is vaccinated."

Figures published yesterday by the Department of Health show that as well as 22 deaths and 705 new cases over the previous 24 hours, there were 62 patients in hospital intensive care units, 45 of whom were on ventilators.

However, due to a technical issue with the department's data system, the number of confirmed cases reported on Saturday was lower than the likely real 24-hour total, with unrecorded results set to be factored in at a later date.

While the numbers over recent days are troubling they are an improvement on statistics recorded earlier this month, showing that the latest lockdown measures are having a positive effect.

The rolling seven day average of new cases is 993 compared to 1,596 on January 9.

While these statistics do offer some hope politicians remain cautious, fully aware that the pandemic has claimed 1,581 lives in Northern Ireland over the past 10 months and will continue to kill at a high rate unless restrictions are observed.

An Executive source told us: "Until there is a consistent and maintained drop in infection numbers lockdown measures will stay in place for some time.

"There are concerns about new and more contagious variants of the disease and the potential they have to cause sudden spikes in infection rates, that's why we are being cautious.

"The last thing the hospitality industry needs is to be given the green light to reopen only to be closed down again two weeks later.

"It's going to be baby steps from here until Easter with the gradual lifting of restrictions."

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