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Shepherd Neame boss eyes Easter pub reopenings as Kent Covid cases fall

Falling Covid cases in Kent have sparked calls for more lockdown measures to be lifted soon after schools reopen - including getting punters back in pubs by Easter.

The county's infection rate has plummeted by more than a third in the last week alone to 154.3 per 100,000 people.

Shepherd Neame chief executive Jonathan Neame

Cases have dropped 80% over the past month and if they continue falling at the same pace, the rate would be in the 30s by early March.

The last time levels of coronavirus were this low in October, Kent was in the original Tier 1 of lockdown measures, with pubs open and friends allowed to mix indoors.

With the success of the vaccine roll-out and cases falling across the county, Shepherd Neame boss Jonathan Neame hopes its 320 pubs and hotels can open for Easter in early April.

“It’s difficult to set a precise date at the moment but all the indications are that by the end of March all those at most risk will have been vaccinated and the programme will be well into those in their 60s, which is a remarkable achievement in itself,” he said.

Mr Neame argues that the government’s objective to protect the NHS and save lives is being met, and now the message must be to save jobs and livelihoods.

The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford is run by the East Kent Hospitals Trust
The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford is run by the East Kent Hospitals Trust

Across the county, so far there have been 134,100 Covid cases confirmed as of 4pm yesterday, February 10, up 176 on the previous day.

In Kent, 109,036 people have tested positive and as of yesterday there have been 3,649 deaths.

Medway also has confirmed 25,064 cases and recorded 693 deaths as of yesterday, but cases and death rates across the county continue to fall.

Mr Neame said: “Covid will, in a matter of weeks, cease to put pressure on the NHS and cease to be the major source of mortality that it has been.

“The industry needs an exit strategy with perhaps a short period of transition with some restrictions in place but no different from last summer and short-lived.”

'We have to move away from this whole population control where somebody somewhere says this is the way we should operate...'

The government is due to set out its lockdown exit strategy on February 22.

Mr Neame says when pubs do reopen, the rules need to be simplified.

“There shouldn’t be any debate about what’s a substantial meal, a curfew or the number of people,” he said.

“We would be comfortable with a slightly later opening date if the government said, ‘right you’re going to operate for two months as you did last summer’ and then in June, hopefully, all restrictions will be lifted.”

After a frustrating and costly year of long lockdowns and scattered reopenings, Mr Neame says he believes there is an “extremist wing” of the health community which is trying to move the goal posts while his industry is forced to stay shut.

Shepherd Neame's base in Faversham
Shepherd Neame's base in Faversham

Urging a return to pub life normality, he said: "We have to move away from this whole population control where somebody somewhere says this is the way we should operate.

“There are clearly people who would like to see fundamental societal change coming out of this and some dark anti-alcohol forces in the country who are trying to arguably use alcohol as a Trojan horse to impact the sector.

“But in my view that is fundamentally unacceptable and a gross breach of democractic and libertarian principles.”

At the moment, the government has only said that schools will fully reopen on March 8 at the earliest.

But the return of outdoor socialising and sports is expected to follow soon after.

Cave Hotel chief executive Johnathan Callister
Cave Hotel chief executive Johnathan Callister

The boss of Boughton golf club and the Cave Hotel, Johnathan Callister, is hopeful courses will be given the green light to open as early as March.

Mr Callister is a member of the board of UK Golf and the all-parliamentary golf group and has been lobbying for the sport.

He hopes the Prime Minister gives a clear date for the return of outdoor sport, which “ideally would be later in March after schools go back”.

“In terms of transmission of the infection, golf poses very little risk because you are outdoors, socially distanced and using your own equipment,” he added.

“Obviously, during winter there is less activity due to the weather anyway, but come the spring, I think there will be a lot of pent-up demand to get back on the golf course, for what is essentially healthy exercise.”

'For some, the only social and physical interaction they get is when they come to the salon...'

Sally Moore, who runs the 123 hair and beauty salon in Herne Bay is hopeful she can reopen next month.

“We are now classified as personal care and, like most other salons, have always operated a very safe, hygienic business environment.

“We do seem to be coming to the end of this dismal situation, with cases falling and vaccinations rising, so we have to be optimistic we will be allowed to re-open soon, hopefully in March.

“For our clients, it’s not just about getting their hair done. For some, the only social and physical interaction they get is when they come to the salon.”

Marc Brigden, who owns the award-winning gastro pub, The Dog at Wingham says the dramatic fall in Covid cases was welcome news but he still could not see light at the end of the tunnel for the hospitality trade.

Marc Brigden from The Dog, Wingham
Marc Brigden from The Dog, Wingham

"There's no doubt we've been hit hardest and the suggestion seems to be that we will be the last out of lockdown," he said.

"The best case scenario would be re-opening in April but it could be July or even later which would be catastrophic.

"All the time businesses are haemorrhaging money. It's costing me £10,000 a month just to stand closed.

"It's great to see cases coming down so rapidly but the government keeps dropping bombshells about new Covid variants which just pushes the fear factor.

"All I know is that the hospitality trade will need all the help it can get with reduced VAT and business rates when we are allowed to open to give us some chance of recovery."

Kent's director of public health Andrew Scott-Clark
Kent's director of public health Andrew Scott-Clark

Kent’s infection rate has plunged 78% since the first week of January. If it was to continue falling at the same pace, the rate would be 33.9 by early March.

This week Andrew Scott-Clark, director of public health in Kent, said: “All our rates are below the national average which is really great news.

“But it’s a long way to go before we can think about opening anything up and getting back to business as usual.

“We really want to see the case rates as we were in summer where there were around 25 cases per 100,000.

“We need to continue as we are in lockdown - and that is of course why we have seen this reduction in rates. We need to maintain that and continue to abide by the rules, maintain and reduce our social distancing as much as possible to keep these rates going down in the way they have been.

“The rates have come down, but what I would say to people is that we’ve got a virus out there that is more transmissible than we’ve seen in the previous wave so any social interaction beyond the lockdown actually risks the case numbers going up - so we need to be really careful now and hunker down.”

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