Landlords in pubs across Bolton are polishing taps, rearranging tables and installing hand sanitiser stations as they prepare to pull their first pints again today after three months of lockdown. JAMIE BOWMAN reports

It was as long ago as March 20 that all pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes in the UK were asked to shut in order to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The only exceptions were cafes and canteens at a few selected places such as schools, hospitals and prisons. Many restaurants and pubs started offering food delivery or takeaway beers to generate income.

But with many pubs already struggling even before the Covid-19 outbreak, in the face of rising rents and falling consumer spending, ‘Super Saturday’ has come as a much-needed tonic.

“We received our business grant which we were incredibly grateful for,” said Rachel Birch, owner of The Beer School in Westhoughton.

“But £10,000 does not go a long way. Thankfully we kept on good terms with everyone we deal with, especially the independent brewers, because we knew we would need them after the pandemic.

“We made sure we didn’t owe large sums of money but we were panicking about not knowing when we could reopen.

“I am not JD Wetherspoon, but I had a self-sufficient business which worked very nicely. Now we are entering a new phase where it is make or break - if people don’t come out after begging us to open and provide delivery it could be a long time before we can get back to normal, if at all.

“We have to pay people now and we have ordered stock and we have the garden and a new lease - it is not plain sailing and we will take ever day and week at a time.”

The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents the pubs industry, has said it welcomes the move to reopen businesses but also called on pubgoers to support staff “to ensure everyone can enjoy the return of our pubs safely”.

“The first we did was carry out a risk assessment,” said Rachel. “We moved some bits of pieces around, removed our soft furnishings and brought in the extra alcohol gels. We have ordered a screen to go around the till but there will be very limited bar service as we are encouraging table service and we have enough staff to do that.

“At the same time we want to strike a balance, we don’t want people to walk in and everyone is wearing gloves and masks.

“We will be using an app allowing people to order and everything will be written on blackboards, but what is sad is that we will be reducing those conversations with people which is what we’re all about.”

Updated government guidance for pubs and restaurants reopening in England says that music should be kept at a low volume to avoid people needing to shout, which increases the risk of transmission from tiny droplets in the air, known as aerosols.

Live gigs and standing at the bar will not be allowed.

“We have done a lot of work on the garden and have cleared a huge space,” said Rachel. “The main thing is that we want to give people the confidence that they can come out and still have a good time.

“Given how stressful and physically exhausting the last few days have been we did consider taking another week to do everything. At some point though you just have to bite the bullet, but I totally respect the decision of other pubs to take their time.

“We risk-assessed and looked at our clientele and we think it can work well under the circumstances.

“As most good community pubs do, we have a very good relationship with what we call our ‘hardcore’.

“We think of them as extended family who have been supportive of us all the way through,” she added

“As it happens some of them are not ready to come out yet but we are still expecting to fill our venue with our regulars. Beyond that I think people will see our garden extension and want to be introduced to something new.”

Rachel was formerly a teacher before she decided to open up The Beer School with her partner Steven Lowther.

They have lived in Westhoughton for the last 30 years and, when Rachel wanted a change in career, she decided to pursue her dream. She found the empty premises in Market Street in early 2016 and opened up the pub in October that year.

“On Saturday I think my main role will be to help people manage,” she said. “I will be making sure everyone is happy, including my staff. Managing a pub is a rollercoaster, but you don’t go into the hospitality business and expect every week to be the same. You know that when you take it on and I wanted something different after my teaching career.”

One bit of good news for Rachel is that she did not have to pour any beer away.

“I knew this was coming,” she added. “I ran everything down and we were left with very little stock. I was one of the lucky ones.” Bolton Council leader, Cllr David Greenhalgh, said: “We know how hard the last few months have been for businesses of all types and sizes right across the borough. Hospitality has been really hit hard and I’m pleased that more businesses can reopen this Saturday. Bolton always backs business, but it has never been more important to show our support. We can all play our part by spending locally wherever possible.

“Of course, we all need to continue to take precautions.”

Consumer group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has also urged people support their local pubs safely over the coming weeks and months.

A spokesperson for Bolton CAMRA added: “We know that about a third of pubs and clubs in Bolton have committed to a reopening date, but not necessarily this Saturday. There remain 24 pubs about which we’ve heard nothing. The rest seem still to be considering.”

Meanwhile, a “significant” policing operation is being planned across the region today.

Greater Manchester Police are cancelling leave for many officers and Mayor Andy Burnham says there will be an increased police presence in cities and towns but the force’s approach will not be “heavy-handed”.

“Be cautious, be sensible and look out for each other,” Mr Burnham said. “This is still a very serious public health crisis that we found ourselves in, and people should approach the weekend with that in mind.

“GMP will have a specific operation [for the reopening of pubs] and they’ve cancelled rest days for large numbers of officers so that we can run a particular operation with regard to preventing illegal raves.

“We have a more specialised surveillance function in place and we’re grateful to the public for intelligence they’re feeding into that.”