'Our 'freedom day' won't be coming anytime soon' - South Tyneside pubs fear further sector hits as lockdown-exit roadmap ends

Pub owners are fearing challenges to keeping customers safe as Boris Johnson’s controversial ‘Freedom Day’ arrives, while South Tyneside remains a Covid blackspot.

The borough was listed as having the highest weekly case rate in the country as the Government’s much-debated final unlocking date approached.

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As of today, all remaining domestic Covid restrictions – including nightclub openings – will be lifted, after the ultimate easing of restrictions was delayed amid a surge in Covid cases linked to the new, ultra-contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Red Hackle landlord Lee Hughes

Stephen Sullivan, the owner of the South Shields venue, Ziggy’s Bar, has been facing a dilemma in the run-up to July 19, with two of his staff forced to isolate.

“It’s a minefield – it feels worse now than it’s ever been,” he said.

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"It’s going to be so difficult for us as hospitality owners to keep everyone safe when everyone says, ‘We don’t have to wear masks – the Government’s said so’. They’ve left it all so vague and so open.

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Stephen Sullivan from Ziggy's in South Shields.

"I’m now sitting here trying to decide what’s the best thing to do. We’re in a dire situation – we can’t continue to trade as we are because we’re losing money and now Government support is drying up altogether. A lot of us have been left wondering, ‘What are we supposed to do?’”

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Mr Sullivan is not alone in dreading what the coming weeks will hold for the area.

Lee Hughes’ Jarrow community pub, the Red Hackle, has been closed since Monday, July 12, owing to a Covid outbreak at the venue following the Euro 2020 final the previous evening.

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Mr Hughes told The Gazette: “It’s a bad idea, this ‘Freedom Day’ business – especially coming after the Euros.

“So, I’m not now opening until July, 23. This is mostly down to the number of customers that were in on Sunday. I don’t want to be the pub that doesn’t take precautionary measures, with infection rates as high as they are currently in South Tyneside.

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"I’m now going to undertake a massive deep clean of the venue. So my ‘Freedom Day’ won’t be coming anytime soon.

"This ‘roadmap’ plan hasn’t worked in my favour – and I’m sure I’m not the only publican in this position locally. I personally think now we should be back to where we were this time last year.”

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Carl Mowatt, manager at the Lakeside Inn, off Leam Lane, is cautiously optimistic about the next stage of the borough’s gradual exit from lockdown.

However, he has also expressed certain reservations around backsliding on precautions.

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"We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost any staff to covid yet,” he said.

"I’ve got mixed feelings about ‘Freedom Day’. Obviously, I’m excited to see customers get back through the door, being a traditional pub. But I’m also hoping the cautiousness of the past few months doesn’t suddenly just go out the window again.

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"We welcome customers being able to come back to the bar – that’s a good old-fashioned thing to see. We just hope people will be respectful still.”

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