The boss of pub chain JD Wetherspoon (JDW.L) has said fears of COVID-19 spreading in pubs are overblown, pleading with the government not to impose any further restrictions on the hospitality industry.
In a statement on Monday, Tim Martin said the safety of pubs had been “widely misunderstood.”
"It is clearly not the case that pubs are ‘dangerous places to be’,” the Wetherspoon founder and chairman of Wetherspoon said.
"There have been more positive cases at one farm in Hereford than at all Wetherspoon pubs — and over four times as many at one sandwich-making facility in Northampton.”
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Martin, who has been outspoken on COVID-19, said 66 members of staff at the pub chain had tested positive for COVID-19 since its 861 sites reopened on 4 July. The pub chain employs more than 41,000 people across the UK.
Martin said 32 million people have visited Wetherspoon pubs since they reopened two months ago. He did not supply similar figures showing how many of those visitors had contracted COVID-19.
Martin said Wetherspoon had invested £15m ($18.9m) in social distancing measures and extra hygiene at its pubs and suggested they were in fact safer than people’s homes.
“The data we have shows that the infection rate has risen, mainly due to social interactions, particularly private household gatherings,” Martin said.
“In shops and hospitality venues there are strict measures in place to ensure they are COVID-free, whereas it is much easier to inadvertently pass on the virus in someone's house, where people are more relaxed and less vigilant.
“Although it is clearly possible for COVID-19 infections to take place in pubs and shops, the evidence indicates that the risk is low, provided social distancing and hygiene rules are followed, and common sense is used.”
The comments were published on the same day new rules came into force across the UK limiting people to gatherings of just six. The rule apply both indoors and outdoors, meaning pubs will have to comply.
Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, last week said the new rules would “have an immediate cooling effect on public confidence to go out and visit our pubs.” She called for more government support for the sector.
The Sunday Telegraph reported over the weekend that the UK government will consider a nation wide curfew if the latest restrictions fail to stop the rise in COVID-19 cases. Pubs and restaurants could be ordered to close by 10pm local time, the report claimed.
“If pubs are closed, or restricted so much that they become unprofitable, a great deal of the strenuous effort of the hospitality industry's 3.2 million employees, currently engaged on upholding hygiene and social distancing standards, will be lost — leaving the public to socialise at home or elsewhere, in unsupervised circumstances,” Martin said.
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McClarkin said: “Without this support from Government, and a clear message that pubs remain open for business and that the public should support them, our sector is in for a very rough end to an already devastating year.”
Shares in Wetherspoon fell over 3% on Monday.