Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin warns of ‘lockdown by stealth’

Tim Martin Weatherspoons

The boss of JD Wetherspoon claimed that Britain was heading towards “lockdown by stealth” following the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Tim Martin, the pub chain’s founder and chairman, said the restrictions, including advice to work from home, would affect the group’s first-half results, making them “loss-making or marginally profitable”. Shares in JD Wetherspoon were down 47p, or 5.4 per cent, to 820p.

Last month Wetherspoon had conceded that some of its older customers were still “understandably cautious” about going to the pub and any improvements in trade would depend on “the outlook for the virus”.

Last week, however, amid calls for more restrictions from academics, members of the Sage committee and ministers, the prime minister brought in Plan B, making “predictions for sales and profits hazardous”.

Wetherspoon, which was founded by Martin in 1979, sells reasonably priced ales, breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It had 44 pubs in 1992 at its flotation and today it has about 860 in the UK and Ireland.

Martin, 66, who has been critical of the government throughout the pandemic, repeated his claim that “the typical British pub, contrary to received opinion in academia, is usually a bastion of social distancing”.

He said that despite reports of labour shortages and supply issues, his company’s pubs were, with few exceptions, “fully stocked and fully staffed”.

Martin said: “The repeated warnings and calls for restrictions combined with arbitrary changes of direction from the government, invariably at short notice, affect customer sentiment and trade.” He added: “In effect the country appears to be heading towards a lockdown by stealth.”

He described the government’s response to the Omicron variant as “especially perplexing” given comments from Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, that nothing she has seen about the variant warrants Britain’s extreme response to it.

Martin argued that booster vaccinations and better weather in the spring were “likely to have a positive impact on the coming months”, adding: “The company will continue to concentrate on providing high standards of service, reasonable prices and regular, small upgrades to the business.”

At last month’s trading update, Wetherspoon reported like-for-like sales down 8.9 per cent on the record sales achieved two years ago, with bar sales down 9.6 per cent and food down 8.1 per cent. In a bid to boost takings, it has just introduced a raft of price cuts and special offers on meals and drinks.

Alastair Reid, an equity analyst at Investec bank, said it “should come as a surprise to no one” that the government restrictions and changes in policy were affecting the pub industry. He said he now assumed Wetherspoon’s 2022 revenues would end up 5 per cent below the 2019 level before rebounding.