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Maidenhead businesses want to reopen 'carefully' and 'sustainably'

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Businesses in the Maidenhead area have called for financial support to continue as the Government prepares to publish its ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown later this month.

Non-essential firms have been shut during the winter wave of coronavirus, with the national lockdown, announced at the start of January, expected to continue into the spring.

In an effort to plot a route out, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going to publish a plan to reopen the country on the week beginning February 22.

Schools are expected to open first from March 8, with places like shops, and then pubs, following suit, reportedly in April or May time.

Companies in and around Maidenhead were asked by the Advertiser this week what they would like to see in the roadmap, with a consensus on continuing financial help - including the furlough scheme, business rates holidays and other grants and loans.

They also want the country to open ‘safely’ and ‘carefully’ as variants of COVID-19 emerge, with one brewery in Marlow Bottom asking for at least two weeks' notice in order to prepare beer for suppliers. Some authentic lager that the brewery produces can take up to five weeks to make. 

Tim Coombes, co-owner of The Rebellion Brewery, at Bencombe Farm, says he has frequently had to ‘guess’ when pubs would reopen in an effort to ensure he has stock available for his clients.

The brewery has taken a 98 per cent hit on its trade sales, which make up 80 per cent of its revenue. The remaining 20 per cent comes from direct consumers.

“Opening up and then shutting down again is not good, having done that three times now,” he said.

“We have ended up throwing away thousands of pints of beer.”

He added: “My guess is that it will be April/May for pubs [to reopen]. I would be surprised if they opened up the pubs, even in a smaller format, before then.

"It is a bit of a juggling match. I think it is impossible for the Government to be honest. I am sure they will be nervous, particularly with the [South African] variant, which is in its infancy. 

"The sooner [businesses reopen] the better, provided it is in a safe way and it is sustainable.”

The brewery has experienced something of a mixed bag during the pandemic.

Despite the shortfalls in trade revenue, Tim said that his business also deals with retail clients, with demand for alcohol rising during this time. 

"We are fortunate that we supply a diverse range of outlets," Tim said, adding the firm has also been enjoying positive numbers for its home deliveries recently.

"Although we were down on overall turnover to the trade, some customers did reasonably well. We have supplied more off licenses than ever before. That has helped us weather the storm."

Tim expects the Government to implement another tiered system out of lockdown - like it did last year - before 'slowly rolling it back' rather than making restrictions tighter. 

He also felt sympathy for small, wet-led pubs who he says have been 'crucified' by restrictions. 

"The [time] notice is critical for the whole [pub] industry. You have got quite a lot of preparation to do," he added.

"I think a number of pubs will realise they have lost too much money and will fold.

"The more notice the better, but I fully understand that is an impossible ask."

Alan Murray, owner of clothes shop Peakes Menswear, in Maidenhead High Street, wants a continuation of financial support ‘to get us back up and running’.

But he also wants the Government to reopen in a way that ensures people return to the high streets. He added that footfall could take a few months to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Alan joined fellow shopkeepers in raising concerns that small firms may struggle to stay afloat, after the second national lockdown was announced back in November. 

“If they say retail can open in March, that is great, but if there is still no weddings, no functions, no pubs, then people aren’t coming to my shop to buy clothes," he said. 

“It will take a few months, and until people feel safe it is not going to get back to the way it was until mid to late summer.

“April would be the best month [to reopen] probably. We will have more people vaccinated, especially the elderly, that would be a big plus.”

Alan added: “I would hate to be in their [the Government’s] shoes. People are still dying and getting ill; it is tragic, awful. We have got to tread carefully.

"But get the majority of people vaccinated and we can start reopening carefully."

He said that Peakes has paid its landlord in full even though it has been closed, on and off, for several months since the pandemic began. 

"The money is going to run out for the Government. We all need to get back to work," Alan said.

"Even if it is a tiered system, we would rather have that than a stay at home [national lockdown]."

To add to Alan's concerns, his stock arrives from the EU, meaning he has to pay new tariffs for his goods now the UK has left the European Union. 

"That is an extra cost on top of everything that is going on," he said. 

Mark Newcombe (below), chairman of the managing committee at the community-owned Craufurd Arms pub, in Gringer Hill, maintained that a return to the tier system would not be ideal for his business.

He previously claimed that tiers would 'rip the heart out' of the hospitality business, adding that his pub would be staying shut until the spring. 

"The last thing we want to do is reopen with restrictions that we had before, and the [10pm] curfew, because that was an absolute disaster," he said. 

Mark shared Alan's view that an extension to the furlough scheme, and business rates holiday, would be welcome, and said that a 'VAT cap across the board' - including on alcohol - would be another of his preferences, as opposed to a cap on just food and soft drinks. 

"We are not interested in opening in a tier system, as we have said before. It does not work for us, being such a small pub," Mark said.

"We are hoping we will be able to operate as a pub when it is safe to do so. We will continue to keep the screens and the table service. 

"We just want to be open again so we can crack on with the business."

He added: "People's mental health has really suffered not being able to go to the pub, particularly for our older customers. It has been really depressing."

Mark reserved some strong words for the Government, whom he claimed has 'ignored' the hospitality sector, with pubs closing at a 'scary' rate.

"The Government need to talk to publicans - they seem to go on with things without discussing it with anybody. There are so many bodies [they can talk to]."

He said that the Craufurd is in a 'fine' position after taking the loans and support available to it, but thinks it could take a while for people's confidence to grow when pubs do reopen to the public. 

But he added: "I am sure it will be fine - we have got a very loyal patronage and they all live locally."

The Government reaffirms that it has put in place 'one of the most generous packages of business support in the world'.

It added plans will soon be released about England's road out of what is now a third national lockdown. 

A spokeswoman said: “We will set out our plan for reopening schools and, gradually, the economy in the week of February 22.

“Ministers regularly engage with the hospitality sector to understand its concerns and discuss how the sector can restart when it is safe to do so.

“We have put in place one of the most comprehensive and generous packages of business support in the world worth £280billion.

“This includes a one-off grant worth up to £9,000, VAT relief, various loan schemes, a business rates holiday as well as the extended furlough scheme.”

The spokeswoman added: "Since appointed four weeks ago, the new business secretary [Kwasi Kwarteng MP] has held meetings with UK Hospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association, and has attended two hospitality roundtables which were attended by a wide range of businesses operating in the sector. Further meetings are planned."

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