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Wetherspoon boss denies 'putting profits before people' on coronavirus

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Wetherspoons pub founder Tim Martin. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin has denied “putting profits before people” after comments suggesting the public should continue visiting pubs despite the risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19.

“The idea of putting profits before people in my opinion is completely untrue,” Martin told journalists on Friday. “It’s a question of balance, it’s how far you go. I think the balance requires common sense. If pubs remain open on a sensible basis, then that’s a plus.”

Earlier this week, Wetherspoon chairman Martin said it was a “tactical error” for the UK government to tell the public to avoid pubs and restaurants. Prime minister Boris Johnson made the plea on Monday, saying it would help stop the spread of novel coronavirus.

Read more: Wetherspoon boss lashes out at Boris Johnson over coronavirus comments

Martin said in a statement on Tuesday that the government should accept “most people will get the virus, while protecting the elderly and sick”. He suggested people should continue to go to pubs.

A study by Imperial College London published at the start of the week said that mitigation — trying to slow the spread of “coronavirus” but not entirely stop it — would “likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over.”

“For countries able to achieve it, this leaves suppression as the preferred policy option,” the study said.

The paper directly informed the sharp change in policy in both the UK and US over the last week.

Asked about the Imperial study, Martin on Friday denied that his position of keeping pubs open would mean accepting a higher death toll from coronavirus.

“I think what [the government] is trying to say is: if you go to the pub, don’t go out 10 of you at a stag do, don’t stand at the bar. Sit at the table by yourself, have lunch, go to the loo, then go home,” he said. “That’s my interpretation, could be pie in the sky but I don’t speak to ministers so I can’t be sure.”

Official government guidance says that the entire population is “strongly advised” to avoid “gatherings in smaller public spaces such as pubs, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, bars, clubs.”

1,600 staff self-isolating

Martin said that more people had contracted Covid-19 in parliament than had in JD Wetherspoon’s pubs.

“Pubs should remain open rather in the way parliament has remained open,” he said. “You could implement reasonable social distancing... rules such as no standing at the bar please, wipe down the surfaces every half hour, and so on.”

He said 1,600 JD Wetherspoon staff are self-isolating as a coronavirus precaution.

“Obviously I’m not an expert in this... but I’ve got a view,” Martin said. “People can accept it or not.”

Boris Johnson gestures with Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, during a visit to Wetherspoons Metropolitan Bar in London, on 10 July. (Henry Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP)

Martin said he would contract Covid-19 if he had the opportunity to do so under controlled circumstances.

“Coming up to 65, ex-heavy smoker, major op[eration] for cancer, and another major op a while ago, I don’t think my life assurance ratings are particularly high, but funnily enough I would, actually, yeah,” he said.

“It’s a personal thing. If someone offered me the opportunity now to have it under supervised conditions, I think I’d probably take it because your chances are very, very good.”

‘Can’t say’ if jobs will be lost

The comments came on an earnings call with journalists coinciding with half-year results. JD Wetherspoon on Friday scrapped its dividend and warned trading had sharply deteriorated in the last two weeks.

“How’s the outlook for the pub industry? F***ing awful,” Martin said. “But I think it’s survivable with sensible government policies and good will.”

JD Wetherspoon employs 43,000 people across the UK and Martin didn’t rule out job cuts in the coming weeks.

A JD Wetherspoon pub. (PA)

“I can’t say, I just don’t know,” he said. “If we can maintain the pubs open it’ll be a tremendous help. It’s happened very quickly.

“We’ll obviously have to look to our costs because any company that doesn’t will be in serious problems in a very short time.”

Read more: Coronavirus: JD Wetherspoon cancels dividend as business slumps

Stockbroker Shore Capital estimated on Friday that Wetherspoon has enough resources to continue for just a few months if business dries up.

Asked if he would consider selling off pubs to fund the business for longer, Martin said buyers “will be as rare as rocking horse manure” in the current market.

He called on the government to offer support to the hospitality industry, which has already lost half a million jobs due to slumping demand.

“If they don’t give a lot of help, there won’t be a hospitality sector,” Martin said.

“You just have to look around central London and very well known names have shut up shop already. They will be laying staff off. A recession has already started and job losses have begun already in a big, big way. Unemployment will go to many millions. We are now in a deep recession and the quickest recession ever.”

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