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100 days to Christmas: How the 'rule of six' could scupper festive trade for UK pubs and clubs

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People sit and drink, outside a pub at Borough Market, as the capital is set to reopen after the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in London, Saturday, July 4, 2020.
People sit and drink, outside a pub at Borough Market, as the capital is set to reopen after the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in London, Saturday, July 4, 2020.   -   Copyright  Alberto Pezzali/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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In an ordinary year, Christmas is good to Mike Buckell. A DJ and owner of British firm Sounds Entertainment, he can expect six to eight bookings a week over the festive season as companies throughout the south-east organise boozy Christmas parties for their staff.

Buckell, whose day job is as a senior producer for the Associated Press, usually saves his vacation days to meet the demand, culminating in every DJs annual golden goose, New Year’s Eve.

But 2020 is not an ordinary year. With the country bound by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s so-called 'rule of six', Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are likely to be low key in the UK even if the country is able to avoid a second or third-wave of coronavirus. Plus, the latest regulations could tighten further.

“How is this year shaping up? Well, to be honest, it hasn't and it's not,” Buckell told Euronews.

Several of Buckell’s corporate clients have cancelled already, all citing COVID-19 as the reason, while one of the three hotels at which Sounds Entertainment DJs are resident has cancelled 16 events. He has two New Year’s parties still booked but expects both to cancel.

As DJs, we are entertaining large numbers of people on a hopefully crowded dance floor - at Christmas, after they have been well fed and well 'watered' - that is just not going to happen this year,” Buckell said. “In short - 2020 is a write-off.”

Bars and clubs

Nicola Walker, the general manager of the Driftwood Bar in Glasgow, said that ordinarily the Christmas week “is like Saturday night every night of the week” but with bars across the UK reduced to offering only table service, capacity has been drastically reduced.

As a result, the Driftwood, situated just off Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, can cater to only 70 people rather than the 195 that it would usually serve while at full capacity. Meanwhile, the rule of six has convinced publicans that, if anything, things are going to get worse in the UK.

“The fact that things are going backwards right now has not filled me with joy,” Walker told Euronews. “In fact, I think everyone in the licensed trade feels like the next thing that will happen is that they’ll close bars and restaurants down again.”

A second lockdown is a worst-case scenario for those in the hospitality industry, still reeling after the summer lockdown saw pubs and restaurants close their doors for several weeks across the UK. Even after measures were lifted in June, many venues are yet to open again, suggesting an existential challenge to an industry that employs almost two million people across the UK.

“You see it walking around, and you see it in the local news. A lot of places just haven’t opened, have shut down completely because they amount of business is not sustainable - and the new rules that have come in are just going to make it worse,” said Walker.

While it is the major rules affecting the trade that have dominated headlines - the rule of six, wearing of masks and the need for contact-tracing - other changes have made life hard for those whose business is helping people to have a good time.

Buckell highlighted that post-COVID regulations for hygiene, for example, means that radio mics provided for weddings - which account for the bulk of his company’s business in normal times - have to be disinfected after use, using a mic-steriliser that costs £111.

“It's hard to imagine a DJ industry in a new socially distanced era. How do you socially distance a dance floor? You can't,” he said.

Rule-breakers

For Walker, the challenge of meeting the new regulations has been compounded by the need to persuade her customers to stick by them. Driftwood has a young crowd, and persuading them to keep their masks on, refrain from singing and playing music on their phones is a full-time job.

For two people.

“It makes me feel like people’s mum. It takes two people on the floor going around making people follow the rules,” she said. “You’re over there two or three times and then eventually you’re just having to say: ‘Look I can’t serve you anymore.’”

Even when it comes to the rule of six, Walker added, in theory it may be good, but in practice it is almost impossible to police. “You ask: ‘Are you from two different houses?’ and people say yes. You know they’re not, but what can you do?’ she said.