by Mo Metcalf Fisher

As part of the Countryside Alliance’s ongoing consultation with rural pub landlords within its extensive countryside business network, it has been revealed that the vast bulk of rural publicans surveyed support allowing their premises, which in most cases are currently unused, to be used in the vaccine rollout.

Some 80% of the 65 rural pubs owners and landlords surveyed, agreed with the Adam Smith Institute’s recommendation that empty sites normally occupied by businesses in the hospitality sector, including pubs, could be called on as part of the national effort to speed up access to vaccinations.

Pubs from across UK serve as community hubs, all year round. In many rural areas, particularly in the isolated areas in Scotland and Wales, pubs can be one of the only buildings for miles around.

On top of this, pubs- as well as other hospitality venues- benefit from commercial grade refrigeration (most of which will now be empty) which could be used to store the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine at the required 2-8 degrees celsius.

The Adam Smith Institute argue that venues that are not typically used for vaccinations could be overseen by local medical professionals serving as devolved management. To incentivise participation, the Government could compensate venues and/ or provide opportunities for former/furloughed staff members. They add that venues not commonly used for vaccinations may need to be granted immunity from lawsuits (except for cases of gross misconduct) as well as support for insuring their premises for this purpose.

In response to the survey's findings, the Westmorland Gazette spoke to Cumbrian based brewery boss Phil Simpson. Mr Simpson, who is the director of Lancaster Brewery which runs the Duke of Edinburgh in Barrow and The Mill at Ulverston, said: "We would be 100 per cent happy to do something like that, but nobody has contacted us about this as of yet. I don't think you would find many pub owners who wouldn't volunteer the space to be honest. There is no reason why this couldn't be done. In terms of space, there is nothing much bigger than our place in Ulverston, the same goes for the Duke of Edinburgh in Barrow. I would of course be open to something like this. I have a lot of staff staying at home and they would be ready and willing to do something like this."

Of those publicans who said they would not support taking part in the rollout ( 9.23%), most cited the premises also serving as their residence or that they are currently operating as a community store for essential goods or take away services, which is permitted under lockdown rules.

Last week, the Prime Minister said: “It is our plan that everyone should have a vaccination available within a radius of 10 miles”. He was presumably referring to England, but the challenge of making the vaccine accessible to rural communities is, if anything, greater in Scotland and Wales.

Access to healthcare in rural areas is inextricably linked to transport and for those in Covid-vulnerable age groups who are currently being offered the vaccine, and who will be in the coming weeks, there can be no assumption about journeys of even under 10 miles.

In many rural communities, families, friends and neighbours will ensure that the elderly and vulnerable can access vaccinations, but transport must continue to be part of the planning process as governments, the NHS and the army tackle the logistics of this huge vaccination programme.

So far, offers from hotel chains, including Best Western Hotels and Ibis, as well as Jockey Club and LW Theatres, to provide facilities have been rebuffed. The same goes for BrewDog’s recent offer of closed bars as vaccination hubs, which include waiting areas, huge refrigerators, and staff willing to support the effort.

Around two million people in the UK have now been given their first vaccine dose against COVID-19. Health secretary Matt Hancock says that 200,000 people were now getting the inoculation every day.

A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said: “Pubs aren’t just places to see off a pint; they are act a central hub in some of the most remote parts of our country. It is no surprise that so many publicans are in favour of allowing their otherwise unused premises to be used in the roll out of the vaccination at this critical time for our country, especially in rural areas. The comforting news that a vaccine is available offers a ray of hope at this bleak time and we need to press ahead. Just as pubs have been with us through thick and thin before, they want to do their part in keeping people safe and speeding up the much needed return to normality we crave. Their offer should be heeded.”

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