Beer and pub sector leaders are pressing the government to give them a reopening date.
The industry is desperate to get back to business after repeated warnings many pubs will not survive.
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) is asking the government for a clear timeline and a “roadmap to recovery”.
The government insists that it has a plan for re-opening the economy which it will reveal after 22 February.
The BBPA said trading restrictions and lockdowns knocked sales by 56% – worth £7.8bn – last year.
In the first lockdown in the second quarter of the year, beer sales plummeted by 96%, it said. Even during the summer, which saw the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and a temporary VAT cut on food and soft drinks, pub beer sales fell 27%.
The BBPA said that unless pubs received more assistance, even once they were allowed to reopen with far fewer restrictions, thousands would fail and be lost for good as many had built up substantial debts during the pandemic.
Its proposed roadmap states that, post-vaccination of the most vulnerable, pubs must reopen in unison with non-essential retail and other parts of the hospitality sector.
It also says mandatory trading restrictions – such as alcoholic drinks served only with a substantial meal, no mixed households and the 10pm curfew – should be removed when pubs reopen in a timely way.
Financially, it is pressing for an extension to the VAT cut and business rates holiday, as well as a significant beer duty cut.
“There’s been a real lack of clarity,” said Dianne Irving, who manages three pubs in Carlisle. “It’s just really, really difficult to know where we are and where we are going.”
“It’s very difficult to plan.” Beyond March, things will be “very difficult, financially,” she said.
Any kind of restrictions make her pubs expensive to run, she said.
Under Tier 1 – the mildest of restrictions – two of her pubs were only breaking even, with her city-centre venue making a loss, she said.
Philip Whitehead, chairman of the British Beer & Pub Association, urged the government “to provide clarity to our sector on when it can expect to fully reopen”.
He added: “After nearly a whole year under forced closure, or open but under severe restrictions, pub trade has been decimated and sales of beer in pubs have plummeted . Furthermore, due to their revenue falling off a cliff in 2020, pubs are holding debt and have little to no cash left.
“We need the government to continue to provide financial support for pubs when they reopen to bridge the gap to full recovery.
Nick Mackenzie, boss of brewer and pub giant Greene King, said the industry needed “a clear plan for reopening. without complex and unjustified restrictions which would make it unviable to open”.
He added that without additional support, “there is a real risk of more viable businesses closing their doors in the weeks and months ahead”.
Mark Davies, boss of Hawthorn, the Community Pub Company with over 700 pubs said: “I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that the government recognises the role that pubs play in so many communities around the UK and that pubs are part of the fabric of our society.
“It is therefore crucial that immediate financial support is secured for the pub sector with business rates and VAT an urgent priority.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We will set out our plan for reopening schools and, gradually, the economy in the week of 22 February. Ministers regularly engage with the sector to understand their 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 £280 billion. This includes a new one-off grant worth up to £9,000, VAT relief, various loan schemes, a business rates holiday as well as the extended furlough scheme.”