CHARLES GRAHAM: pandemic food for thought

The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on food has been uppermost in people’s thoughts in more ways than one this week.
Does this constitute a substantial meal?Does this constitute a substantial meal?
Does this constitute a substantial meal?

Most prominently on a national level there has been the ongoing dispute as to whether or not the Government should provide free school meals in the half-term and Christmas holidays for youngsters who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Yes” is the resounding shout from the majority after Man United star Marcus Rashford helped push the issue further up the agenda, although at the time of going to press, the Prime Minister was holding out against such a move, saying that provision was being made to those on low incomes in other ways. Maybe that is the case (the numbers bandied about are always so bamboozlingly big and often indefinable) but there is no doubt the argument about this relatively small amount of money has been a PR disaster for the Government.

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Meanwhile so many councils, charities, businesses and other organisations and individuals have, to their great credit, come forward with offers to plug the perceived funding gap. I would have thought that there are so many free comestibles available to the needy on the back of this that no pupil will now go hungry, although from a principle point of view, that of course isn’t the point. Still on the subject of food, there is the matter of pubs and clubs trying to avoid Tier 3 closure by suddenly finding the ability to serve meals for the first time.

What constitutes a “substantial meal” remains something of a moot point and difficult for the authorities to interpret and enforce.

Take the hitherto drinks-only Manchester bar which is now flogging copious amounts of beans or spaghetti on toast at £2 a plateful in a bid to avoid sanctions. Are people still going to go in sufficient numbers for sit-down meals like that to make it viable?

I thought the Grahams’ favoured watering hole The Crooke Hall Inn - which has long served proper grub which is undoubtedly substantial - would be OK, its having segregated eating and drinking customers in two different parts of the building when we were in Tier 2 and, once we’d gone up a tier, they still seemed to be doing just fine meal-wise.

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But on Tuesday night we got a phone call from the pub to tell us that they just couldn’t make it pay without the social drinkers’ input and it would be shutting until further notice. Staff would scrape by in the meantime on two-thirds salaries under the latest Government support scheme. Since then though it looks like they might be opening for limited hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for short periods to serve particular meals. I guess you should try anything once.

Many enterprises, then, are taking the issue seriously, sticking to the rules and weighing up the financial odds. But the onus isn’t only on them: the customers have a responsibility too.

Take The Shamrock in Standish which last Friday started serving substantial food like fish and chips and burgers, only to find people were booking as eating customers then only asking for drinks when they arrived. Fearful of prosecution for this selfish dodge by their clientele, the licensees have now chosen to shut up shop for now too.

Others have already done so. InnTheBar boss Tony Callaghan admitted that he couldn’t turn a profit if people only came to his outlets for meals, especially as there had already been a fall-off in trade in the last few weeks as restrictions tightened.

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He was also keen to point out that the flouting goes well beyond licensed premises, believing people are far likelier to catch something in supermarkets than his bars, the latter of which have employed stringent safety controls. And he recounted an episode in a Wigan cafe the other day when a masked pensioner remonstrated with five women at another table who had all convened for one of their number’s birthday and clearly weren’t from the same household.

Just how many more restrictions the authorities will feel they need to be imposing to turn the Covid tide again remain to be seen. Sadly I fear it will be more than denying folk a quiet pint.

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