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Loneliness and poverty warning as gyms and pubs shut in UK's worst-hit area

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·6-min read
The Training Station gym faces closure. Photo: The Training Station
The Training Station gym faces closure. Photo: The Training Station

On Christmas Day last year, pub manager Tricia Butler cooked a roast dinner for 35 people with no family to spend the festive season with.

This year, she fears some of her regulars will have to spend Christmas alone. Her pub is one of many venues forced to shut by new restrictions on “very high risk” areas.

The Park Brow pub is in Kirkby, a small town on the outskirts of Liverpool. It forms part of the Knowsley district, which now has the highest infection rates of any local authority in Britain. 2,679 cases have been recorded for every 100,000 people, compared to an England average of 960.

The wider Liverpool city region became the first area to face tougher measures including the closure of pubs, bars, gyms, betting shops and casinos from Wednesday.

READ MORE: Liverpool firms told to shut as new lockdown tiers revealed

Knowsley council’s Labour leader Graham Morgan has acknowledged the virus is “out of control” locally, and said he “reluctantly” accepted the lockdown to protect vulnerable residents and the NHS.

But staff at several pubs and gyms in the area told Yahoo Finance UK the shutdown put their firms and workers’ jobs at risk, and could trigger rising poverty, debt and health problems from loneliness to obesity.

One claimed pubs had been made a “scapegoat,” as even local public health chiefs are uncertain what lies behind the area’s soaring infection rates.

Watch: What are the new job support schemes and grants for the self-employed?

‘Can we afford the rent while we’re closed?’

Gym and pub workers alike in Kirkby say they worry as much about how some customers will cope with closure as they do about their own livelihoods.

“No offence to Kirkby, but there’s nothing around for kids to do other than sit in their house on their iPads,” said Liam Rice, who co-runs the Training Station gym.

The charity-run gym sees little way it can avoid scrapping all its Muay Thai or Thai boxing sessions for young people, as well as the fitness classes it runs for parents while they wait.

Rice worries about obesity and mental health issues during the new lockdown, in a borough already struggling with some of the worst health problems in the country.

READ MORE: UK unemployment hits 1.5 million as redundancies soar

“I was gutted. It’s the health and wellbeing of the community,” he said. Young people will miss out not only on exercise and fun, but also discipline and routine that eventually helps them when entering the world of work, according to Rice.

UKactive, which represents gym and leisure firms nationally, has called their inclusion in the Liverpool city region shutdown “unnecessary,” warning it will “ultimately worsen health inequalities in the region.”

Rice has little idea how long the Training Station, already run on a shoestring by volunteers, can survive the shutdown. “Can we afford rent while we’re closed, can we afford to reopen? It’s scary to think - how long is this going to continue?”

‘They come every day so they’re not lonely’

Pub manager Tricia Butler, right, and former staff member Abby Blair, left, during a previous festive season at the Park Brow pub in Kirkby. Photo: The Park Brow
Pub manager Tricia Butler, right, and former staff member Abby Blair, left, during a previous festive season at the Park Brow pub in Kirkby. Photo: The Park Brow

One Park Brow regular in his 70s cried his eyes out at the bar on Monday night after the pub shutdown was confirmed, according to Butler.

“He knows he’ll see no-one now,” she said. “It’s heart-breaking. I’m worried sick about customers without family; they come every day just to speak to us so they’re not lonely.”

Butler also fears her four staff and others in the industry could be left in poverty, despite government support. She had already had to slash their hours, with takings “terrible” amid the pandemic and government curbs including the 10pm curfew.

Now she expects to only be able to pay them around two-thirds of their reduced hours via the UK job support scheme. “We’ve got bills to pay, but it’s going to be a pittance.

READ MORE: UK needs £40bn tax hikes as economy ‘cannot be fully protected’

A barman at another Kirkby pub told Yahoo Finance UK warned pub workers would end up “deeper in debt.”

“How can anyone live 33% under the poverty line, and still get 100% bills? The gas, leccy, water, they don’t stop,” said the worker, who wished to remain anonymous. “This is desperation now.”

Such a hit to household incomes will come as a heavy blow in Knowsley, one of the most deprived areas in Britain going into the crisis.

Anger is common that pubs and bars have been singled out. “We broke our backs sticking to everything; no-one’s broken rules or regulations here. And then we’re closing, right on top of Christmas,” said Butler.

Watch: Liverpool bar owners say support ‘not enough’

Another local publican agreed. “We abided by every rule there was; we’ve had no problems with COVID at all. I feel as if pubs are being made scapegoats.”

He added grimly: “They’re killing us with the 10pm [curfew], and now they’re shutting the doors. There’s the possibility of not opening again.

“You’re looking at 12 members of staff who are going to lose their jobs. You’re putting a lot of our customers in the house on their own. I think you’re going to see a lot of bad outcomes.”

‘Everyone will help each other’

Both pub chiefs blamed young people returning to school for soaring cases. One local health chief told the Liverpool Echo explaining the surge was “really hard,” however, saying high numbers of local key workers and others unable to work from home appeared the most plausible explanation.

Hospitality chiefs nationally have warned tougher restrictions also risk pushing drinkers into less regulated household settings. More than 50 people were caught at a house party in Kirkby over the weekend, prompting Merseyside Police to issue three fines.

Knowsley Chief Inspector Phil Mullally said many on Merseyside were “selflessly making huge sacrifices,” but warned they would come after those who “reckless and thoughtlessly” put others at risk.

Council leader Morgan released his own statement after the lockdown was confirmed, saying he had “every confidence” the local population would act to drive infection rates down.

He said leaders across the region would keep pressing the government for more financial support, on top of their own £40m emergency funding package.

Butler told Yahoo Finance UK Kirkby’s strong community spirit may also help limit some of the fallout from new restrictions. Her pub and the Training Station gym both took hampers to vulnerable residents homes during the first national lockdown. “Everyone will help each other.”