This week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was repeatedly asked whether a Scotch egg is a “substantial meal” live on television. The reason: England is once again subject to a tiered lockdown, with pubs in Tier 2 only allowed to serve alcohol if they do so alongside said “substantial meal”.
The problem is, nobody is exactly clear on what constitutes a substantial meal. The last time this happened, in October, pubs and bars started serving Chicago Town pizzas and supermarket oven chips to swerve the rules and remain open – and that worked then, so who’s to say it won’t work now?
Either way, the government has confirmed that pubs can team up with local takeaways to provide food to customers, potentially allowing some venues to remain open where they might not have been able to.
Last night, I headed out to central London to see if any pubs were applying the same kind of workarounds, but found half of them still shut, not a great deal of trade and some confused people who wanted to drink but didn’t want to repeatedly order chicken wings to do so.
Much of the food was coming through the back door and was being served in single-use plastic containers, with single-use cutlery, and a lot of food was being wasted. In one pub, while punters were required to continue ordering food even though they’d already eaten, less than 200 metres away around 100 people queued at a pop-up food bank.
In the pubs that were open, I asked guests whether they understand the rules, and if they thought their meal could be classed as “substantial”.
A PIECE OF PIZZA
Person One: You have to get a pizza for £2, and then you can have a drink. It’s cheap, but we didn’t want any food, so we’re not going to eat it. We’ll probably end up giving it to a homeless person.
Person Two: We don’t want it; we’ve already eaten, we’re just having a drink.
PIGS IN BLANKETS AND WINGS
Person One: We’re still trying to suss out [the rules]. It’s such a piss-take. They just said that you have to order any food, so I got some wings and she got some pigs in blankets. But we’d eaten beforehand, we didn’t want it.
Person Two: It was too much food – we’d already had food before. We’re not going to eat it, we’ll just leave it here so we can drink. I’m not into it, to be honest, because sometimes you’re full and you just want to come out for a drink.
Person Three: They’re just making us pay more money. And wasting loads of food.
“Substantial meal? I’ve got chips. Why? Who are you writing this for? Is it positive or negative? Because if it’s negative, you can piss off – they’ve only just reopened, and they don’t need that.”
A TOASTIE, SOME CRISPS AND SOME POPCORN
Person One: This is the substantial food menu. I had cheese on toast with popcorn and crisps. It was substantial, to be fair; I was full after the toastie. That’s enough for me for an entire meal, I won’t eat anything else. But I don’t know if I can have more drinks. I’ve left the popcorn and crisps on the plate.
Person Two: They said we could have two drinks with one meal, and we’d have to order more food to keep on drinking. Has this got anything to do with the garlic bread situation, or anything? No, the Scotch egg!
Person One: What?
Person Two: I don’t go on Facebook that much anymore, but I read that someone ordered a Scotch egg and managed to get away with staying in the pub [VICE could not find the article in question, but it’s possible Person Two was referring to the Matt Hancock Scotch egg discourse]. To be fair, it is good to eat when you drink. But I do think you should be able to drink more after one meal. How does that add to the risk of coronavirus? I don’t know.
THREE WINGS BETWEEN THREE PEOPLE
“You’ve got to buy anything, so we got some wings. Was it substantial? Nah, you just have to buy it to drink. I’ll eat when I get home. As long as there’s some food on the table, you’re alright. Speak to the guy behind the bar, he’ll sort you out. The food is lovely, to be fair, but it’s a bit mad having to have food on your table to have a drink.”
CHICKEN TIKKA BITES BETWEEN TWO
“I don’t know what the rules officially are, to be honest, but when I came in here they said you have to buy something, like a small snack. There was something on the board telling us what you could have. We got some chicken tikka bits so we could have a couple of drinks. It’s not substantial, but it depends on how hungry you are. It’s really unclear – what do you think a substantial meal is? Nobody seems to know.”
TAKEAWAY FROM NEXT DOOR
“I think it was substantial, yeah. We got food from the takeaway across the street and brought it in. This is my main meal; I’m not going to have anything before I go to bed.
“The only issue is that technically, when you’re done [eating], you’re supposed to leave. I think, in this case, I’ll leave this here and snack on it, as long as I’m able to drink. Will I eat it all? Probably not. But I won’t have to order more food to stay. You should only have to eat once.”