England’s 10pm pub and restaurant curfew could be shifted back an hour and supermarkets ordered to stop selling alcohol after 11pm under plans being considered by ministers.
Business Matters understands that government insiders have been impressed by Northern Ireland’s own regulations on night-time hospitality, where there have been few incidents of public overcrowding or house parties after closing time.
Tory MPs and Labour-led northern council chiefs have complained bitterly about the counterproductive impact of the 10pm curfew imposed in England, amid scenes of people crowding the streets after they leave pubs, bars and restaurants.
When the regulations were first introduced, pubgoers gathered on the street in Soho in London, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Bristol until the late hours. In the capital, Tube trains were crammed with people soon after the 10pm closing time.
But in Northern Ireland the curfew was set at 11pm, with a last orders requirement at 10.30pm, and has worked alongside the province’s own rules banning any supermarket or shops from selling alcohol after that time.
In England, supermarkets, shops and off licences can sell booze 24 hours a day, meaning those wanting to continue drinking can pick up alcohol after leaving the pub and then potentially congregate in the street or in each others’ homes without social distancing.
Boris Johnson is under huge pressure to ditch the 10pm curfew, which critics say is not based on any substantial scientific evidence of reduction in spread of the virus, other than suggestions that the later people drink the more likely they will be intoxicated and not socially distance.
“Pro-liberty” Tory MPs are gearing up to vote against the renewal of the rule next week and if Labour backs its mayors and council chiefs the government could be defeated in the Commons.
One minister told Business Matters that the curfew was “crippling” pubs and the hospitality trade. Many restaurants which had relied on “second sittings” in the evening, when diners are more likely to spend time and money on drinking late, were being hit hard.
If England were to copy Northern Ireland, it would have to also change regulations on the opening hours of shops that sell alcohol to align the 11pm cut-off times for pubs and off-licences.
“It seems to work in Northern Ireland, there’ve been none of the problems we’ve seen over here,” one insider said.
A rival plan to bring forward the curfew to 9pm is seen as “ridiculous” by some inside government, as it would hurt the hospitality trade even more without necessarily curing the problem of street drinking.
In Scotland, shops and off-licences must already stop selling alcohol at 10pm, which matches its own new curfew for pubs and restaurants.
Northern Ireland has long had different rules from the rest of the UK on licensing. Its bars and pubs were allowed to stay open until 1am until the new 11pm curfew was introduced last month, which was itself bitterly opposed by many in its hospitality sector.
In Wales, the rules are slightly different, with a 10pm last orders edict and drinkers given 20 minutes to then get out before the pubs close.
The Sun reported on Wednesday that pubs and restaurants face total closure in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle from possibly later this week if the surge in Covid cases continues.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is scrambling to put together a local bailout package for businesses facing ruin, while in Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon is preparing tighter restrictions too.