Is the 'substantial meal' COVID rule for pubs set to be ditched?

·5-min read
Sign in the style of old cinema signage makes fun of the fact that during current coronavirus rules, that you can only visit a pub if you also book in for a 'substantial meal' on 5th December 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Pubs will no longer have to serve a 'substantial meal' with alcohol when they reopen, a report has suggested. (Getty)

Pubs will no longer have to serve alcohol with a ‘substantial meal’ when they reopen after the latest national lockdown, a report has suggested.

The Times reported that Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown would include a simplification of rules including the removal of requirements for pubs to serve a ‘substantial meal’ alongside alcoholic drinks.

The newspaper suggested that outdoor socialising and sport could return as soon as next month and would come within weeks of children returning to schools on March 8.

The introduction of what some dubbed the ‘Scotch egg rule’ as part of the tier system introduced in December proved controversial.

Large juicy cutlets stuffed with boiled egg on a dark wooden background. Scottish cutlet.
Pub classic the scotch egg became the centre of attention when the 'substantial meal' rule was introduced as part of the tier system. (Getty)

As part of the tier system rules were tightened on drinking at hospitality venues.

While pubs and restaurants were ordered to close in Tiers 3 and 4, they could remain open in Tier 2 - but could only sell alcohol with a “substantial meal”.

Read more

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The caveat sparked widespread controversy, with many saying the government’s definition of a ‘substantial meal’ was vague and open to interpretation.

Reacting to rumours that the rule could be scrapped, Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, said: “The substantial meal rule was introduced without evidence that it would impact COVID transmissions.

“The outcomes were to give businesses another headache, confuse customers and put pressure on staff.

“There’s a strong body of evidence to demonstrate that hospitality venues are among the safest of public indoor spaces which is unsurprising given the huge investments of time and money to ensure that premises are secure.

“Scrapping the substantial rule meal would be a pragmatic step, easing pressure on businesses, potentially allowing for many more venues to open, without a detrimental effect on public safety.

“We will continue to work with the Government to secure a safe and sustainable reopening plan for the whole of hospitality.”

The ‘Scotch Egg rule’

Guidelines in the government’s COVID-19 winter plan defined “substantial meals” as “a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal”, leading to widespread criticism that the definition remained vague and sparking confusion as ministers appeared to contradict one another on what would fall into the category.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick appeared to rule out traditional pub snacks like a packet of crisps or a side of fries and suggested a Cornish pasty on its own would not constitute a substantial meal, unless it came on a plate, to a table, with a side of chips or salad.

He told LBC in October: “It would be like a main course, rather than, say, a packet of crisps or a plate of chips.”

Watch: Minister says scotch egg counts as a ‘substantial meal’

But minister George Eustice seemed to think otherwise, telling LBC: “I think a scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service, and often that might be as a starter.”

Michael Gove created further confusion by disagreeing the following day, saying that a scotch egg was “probably a starter”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the description was “open to interpretation” and there was “a degree of flexibility”.

The organisation said: “It would be difficult to argue that a single sausage roll or a snack pork pie constitutes a main meal, whereas if it was served plated with accompaniments such as vegetables, salad, potatoes it could be considered substantial.”

At the time, police said they would not be checking what people were eating in pubs to ensure they were following the ‘substantial meals’, with Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, who is the lead for civil contingencies at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, telling iNews: “We have other priorities.”

Legal criticism over the substantial meal rule

The rule also became the subject of debate by those in the legal profession, with many analysing how difficult it was to define.

In a post on its website in December, Keystone Law said it had “hoped to have seen the end of case law and argument around this point when the Licensing Act 1964 was replaced by the Licensing Act 2003, which did not include the term.

Outlining how licensing laws have changed around similar issues, the post said: “Inevitably, it boils down to fact and degree. In some ways, it is easier to state what is not substantial.

“Whilst styles of eating have changed over the generations since the above cases were decided, even today the service of a small packet of crisps or peanuts or a little bowl of olives will, in our opinion, not suffice to be regarded as a ‘substantial’ as to amount to a table meal.

It added: “However, there is a very wide spectrum in play here and the current modern trend for crisp sandwiches, perhaps with a side salad, would be regarded as “substantial” and sufficient for the law.

“As an enforcement officer once said to one of the authors, ‘I cannot explain what a substantial meal is, but I know it when I see it’. Therefore, if officers go into a venue located in Tier 2 and see patrons licking their lips, tucking into food and looking replete, the substantial test will be passed.

“However, if faced with patrons knocking back pints, ignoring the bowl of nachos in the middle of the table, then enforcement action could follow.”

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner also spoke out on the topic, saying in a video posted online: “Who’s to say what a main meal is? Pretty subjective. It’s not a pack of crisps, but could it be a couple of scotch eggs? As Michael Gpve said it could be.

“I don’t know, why does it always have to be about scotch eggs and pies and fish and chips with politicians?”

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown

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