The Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin has vowed to keep his 867 UK pubs open as long as possible during the coronavirus crisis and defended his right to issue public pronouncements on the best way to contain the outbreak.
Speaking on Friday, Martin denied that weighing in on pandemic containment and keeping the chain’s pubs open was irresponsible.
He said: “Am I out of my depth? We’re a democracy, aren’t we? I’m obviously not an expert but I’ve got a view and that’s all I can say. People can accept it or not. Even if you’re not an epidemiologist you can look at what other countries do and weigh up what’s happened.
“More people have caught the virus in one building, parliament, than in all our pubs combined.”
Martin, who has previously issued lengthy diatribes on Brexit, maintained his defiant stance after releasing a statement earlier this week saying the government would be wrong to prevent people visiting pubs and restaurants, and advocating “group immunity” as a strategy for the UK.
So far the government has asked the population to stay away from pubs and bars, but has stopped short of outright closure of sites, which has led to some venues staying open – including Wetherspoons branches – and continuing to serve customers.
He said that people getting the virus early and becoming immune could be beneficial in the long-term in dealing with any future spikes in cases.
“One of the cabinet, Nadine Dorries, has had the virus. She’s recovered now but having someone in the cabinet who’s resistant to it is a plus.”
Wetherspoons has said its 867 UK pubs will stay open but with precautions in place, such as no standing at the bar, frequent surface wipedowns and customers being asked to sit far apart from each other where possible.
Its seven-strong network in Ireland is closed, under a voluntary agreement with the country’s pubs trade body, while one of the chain’s pubs, in Enfield, has issued a “regulars only” to keep numbers down, said Martin.
He described the outlook for pubs as “fucking awful” but insisted it was survivable.
Visits to pubs have dropped dramatically since the government said people should avoid them, and the Wetherspoons boss warned that a long-term shutdown could be terminal for any company in the sector.
“Even if you’ve got the greatest pub company in the world, you depend on the doors being open. If they shut for long enough the entire hospitality industry, never mind Wetherspoons, we’ll be in serious trouble.”
Martin said 1,600 of his 43,000 staff are on sick pay because they’re self-isolating, adding that he could not rule out job losses.
“I really can’t tell you at this moment. The advice from the prime minister has caused pub trade and restaurant trade to drop a lot. We’ll have to see in the next few weeks.”
He said Boris Johnson, who he backed in the Conservative leadership race, had taken a “reasonably sensible path” during the crisis so far.
Martin was speaking as Wetherspoons announced another set of strong results for the six months to 26 January, a period before the pandemic took hold across the world.
Sales were 4.9% higher at £933m, with pre-tax profits up 15% to £57.9m excluding one-off items that the company did not detail, but down 14% to £42m including them.
Martin said it was “impossible to provide realistic guidance” on performance in the rest of the year, given uncertainty over the length of the Covid-19 crisis.
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