Fears overcrowding in Wetherspoon pubs may lead to Covid-19 spike

Fears that relaxed summer socialising will lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases around the UK have been heightened after concerns that JD Wetherspoon is failing to prevent overcrowding in pubs in its 900-strong chain.

Concerns about poor social distancing by customers in Wetherspoon pubs followed a surge in visitors during recent hot weather and after the publication of A-level results last Thursday. Customers in a south London pub run by the company said they had not been asked to provide personal details, including mobile phone numbers that can be used in the government’s track and trace system.

The Guardian found that in one of south London’s most popular pubs with young people, customers were allowed to buy drinks directly from the bar and stood within 1 metre of others without any intervention by the staff.

One customer described the pub as “rammed” and staff were unable to cope with the demand for drinks and food.

Young people often gather in Wetherspoonpubs due to their low prices, attracted by large discounts on alcoholic drinks and food prices compared with rival chains. Due to current restrictions on larger venues, some of the pubs are likely among the largest social gatherings in the UK.

Anxieties about overcrowding follow a probe by the Daily Record in Scotland showing that several of the firm’s pubs were failing to ask for mobile phone data, leading the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to make it mandatory.

Wetherspoon said: “The absence of music, for example, and high food sales attract all age groups. In the good weather of recent weeks, there may have been a higher than usual number of young people in pubs generally.

“The company is making strenuous efforts to comply with the regulations around social distancing. Whereas it is not possible to create an entirely risk-free environment, the company will continue to modify and improve its systems in response to Covid-19 and will review the procedures at any individual pub which is the subject of complaint.”

Tim Martin

Tim Martin has disputed that his customers are at risk from catching Covid-19, demanding scientific proof that shows people are more at risk in pubs than other places. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

A spokesman said managers asked customers to write down their personal details and post them in “ballot boxes” in the pub and the company recently added barcodes on tables that can be scanned, allowing customers to participate in the track and trace system.

He said: “The combined systems have worked well and 616,192 customers have registered using the system across the entire company across the first five days this week (to 14 August), which equates to one registration per £46.21 of sales, bearing in mind only one member of each group needs to register.”

Helen Hayes, the Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, said: ‘When so many pubs and restaurants are welcoming customers back with very strict protocols to keep everyone safe and prevent the further spread of coronavirus, it is really concerning to hear reports of some pubs which are allowing overcrowding and not insisting on customer contact details for track and trace.

“They are putting lives at risk and I’ve asked local environmental health officers to investigate urgently.”

Many health experts have become concerned that pubs will become a breeding ground for the next surge in the virus, though so far the industry disputes that a disproportionate number of either staff or customers have reported positive test results.

Prof Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said it was clear that “venues like pubs can be the centres for outbreaks”.

Other pub chains request information from customers at the entrance and say they abide by government regulations. Fuller’s, which has 215 managed pubs, said: “We take our responsibility to support NHS Test and Trace very seriously.”

Wetherspoon’s chairman, Tim Martin, has disputed that his customers are at risk from catching Covid-19, demanding that Pennington produce the science that shows people are more at risk in pubs than other places.