Jonathan Neame vividly recalls the moment he realised Covid-19 was heading for the UK and was going to change life for ever.
Jonathan, the chief executive of the Shepherd Neame brewery based in Faversham, was listening to a speaker at a trade association meeting in London sharing information about how the coronavirus was sweeping through Italy. It was 12 March, 2020 and the hall fell silent at descriptions of overflowing hospitals, fear, lockdown, grieving families and the widespread impact on everyday life.
“It was a chilling report,” Jonathan says, his mind going back to that dark day before our world fell apart. “I knew we had very little time before the virus took hold here and we had to act very quickly to save the business.”
As soon as he returned to the office, Jonathan contacted a friend who runs a factory in another sector, to ask what precautions they were taking to keep everyone safe – and how to keep going.
“By doing this, I believe I had a 48-hour head start on making Shepherd Neame Covid-secure,” he says. “Within days, I had sent everyone home from our offices, ensuring they all had the IT to continue working. I implemented cleaning regimes and made moves to ringfence the viability of the brewery. I knew that if we closed it would be near impossible to reopen.”
The gloom within the business deepened on 16 March, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised people to “avoid pubs” as potential centres of infection. By 23 March, the first lockdown had been imposed.
Jonathan admits those early days were “scary”. His trademark smile disappears as he tells me: “We had no finance, no idea what to do with staff and it soon became clear that pubs were going to be treated differently from non-essential retail, which I still maintain was wrong and unfair.”
However, the mood lightened slightly when the Chancellor made announcements about launching the furlough scheme and other financial support. “There was definitely a feeling that we were all in this together and we had to knuckle down and get through it,” says Jonathan.
At that stage, of course, no one knew just how long lockdown would last. In a sweepstake among brewery managers, he predicted 76 days, because that how long it had been in Wuhan, where the virus first broke. “I was looking at a worst case scenario,” he says. “Who knew we would actually be locked down for 105 days?”
Using the government scheme to protect jobs, Jonathan arranged for 97% of the brewery’s 1,700 staff to be furloughed. Pub tenants were released from rent obligations, food stored in their kitchens was distributed to homeless shelters and needy families and the shutters came down.
Then came an awakening of community spirit, Jonathan’s smile returns as he recalls how many of Shepherd Neame’s pubs provided worthy services, starting takeaway food services and keeping in touch with the lonely and isolated. The brewery began manufacturing hand sanitiser and put in “huge” orders with hop growers, so they could plant for the next season.
“These growers work to extremely tight margins and I knew that if we didn’t offer help, many would go under,” says Jonathan.
Beer production continued, with supermarket sales “going through the roof” as people drank at home, he recalls. Another positive was that many pub tenants took the time to upgrade their premises, decorating and creating attractive outdoor spaces which came into their own when lockdown lifted in July.
Jonathan kept his customers and staff informed of developments with a series of “Dear Friends” letters, published on the company website. He explains: “I wanted everyone to see we were doing the right thing. I could see that there was a mutual realisation that pubs were crucial to the community. They are where we meet friends and family, where we socialise – and humans desperately need to socialise. When the pubs were closed, we were starved of this part of life.”
I ask Jonathan how he would sum up the pandemic. He ponders and replies: “I think it can be divided into three chapters. The first was the initial lockdown, with the overwhelming sense of community spirit. Chapter three was the rollout of the vaccine programme, which has been a work of genius and brilliance. Chapter two, however, was extremely stressful and it was clear at times that the government didn’t know what it was doing.
“Everyone in the hospitality sector was angry. We felt we had been thrown under the bus. We had eight changes of strategy in as many weeks. Remember the rule that you had to have a ‘substantial meal’ with a pint? And the 10pm curfew, which meant everyone was out on the streets at once, with all the potential for infection? The imposition of the tier system was arbitrary and unfair. The test and trace system has been shambolic. A crisis like this requires good governance and we’ve not seen it. I just hope lessons are learned.”
Finally, I ask Jonathan the elephant in the room question – how much has the pandemic cost the business? Understandably, he shies away from answering, saying figures are still being assessed, but he does admit that at its peak the brewery was losing £150,000 a day.
However – and here the smile returns – he is confident the UK economy will see a full recovery and within a year he hopes his business will return to where it was. He praises the banks for their support and understanding and says the Chancellor has done a “brilliant job”.
As I leave the company boardroom it’s clear the past 18 months have clearly taken their toll. Jonathan admits he’s not had a proper break and is looking forward to a three-week holiday. I bet he’ll be raising a pint or two in relaxation.