'It's a Hard Pill to Swallow' – Liverpool Reacts to Tier 3 Lockdown

As England's new coronavirus restrictions are introduced, we spoke to business owners in one of the country's worst affected cities.
john lennon statue covid mask liverpool
A John Lennon statue on Mathew Street, Liverpool. Photo: Ed Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo

Starting today, Liverpool is subject to the strictest local restrictions ever seen in the UK during peacetime. Bars, pubs and gyms are shut, social contact with anyone outside your own household is forbidden and you’re strongly advised not to leave the area unless for essential travel.

This is because the Liverpool City Region – which covers the Wirral, as well as neighbouring Knowsley, Halton, Sefton and St Helens – is the only place in the UK to be placed under the government’s new Tier 3 measures as a result of our spiralling coronavirus rate.


Everyone knew it was coming, thanks to a leak published in The Times last week. But that didn't make Boris Johnson’s Monday announcement any less crushing for the people of this city, and the business owners who will be hit hardest.

How England's New Coronavirus Rules Will Affect You

Liverpool’s is a leisure, hospitality and tourism economy geared towards people looking great and having a good time. It may seem provincial to some, but there is no “city”, no “services”, and in no way the same kind of mostly-unaffected WFH workforce here. Tier 3, then, brutalises precisely the type of economy Liverpool relies on.

Rob Gutmann, who owns four venues across the city, has been running bars for decades. He played a huge part in regenerating the Albert Dock, with venues like the Blue Bar and Grill, and created Korova, the now-shuttered legendary indie bar.

All of Rob’s spots are “hybrid” venues with a substantial food offering – meaning they can stay open under Tier 3, unlike pubs and bars that focus primarily on booze – but these latest restrictions have felt like another hammer blow in the toughest year businesses have ever seen.

“Since we reopened, it has felt like death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “The curfew, the rule of six, the one household rule - that was all after having reopened with our tables distanced, which cuts down our capacity massively. All of it is anathema to our business models. It’s not mad, because we understand why - but it’s also hard work and so draining too, being constantly asked to readjust.”


“Liverpool being placed in the Tier 3 strata is another state of anxiety and uncertainty that we’re having to deal with as a set of hospitality businesses,” Rob added. “All businesses have a degree of uncertainty, but that keeps changing, on a weekly basis. I’m sitting down with managers, speaking to them about how many people we can employ and how many hours we can distribute, not knowing what our market is anymore.”

In the city’s Baltic Triangle, David Williams and Oliver Press run the Baltic Market, a massive street food market that they built out of a disused old appendix to the Cains Brewery. David and Oliver also run Independent Liverpool, a network of small businesses connected through a card scheme that offers people discounts and incentives for shopping locally. David told me he fears a number of businesses won’t come out the other side of these latest restrictions, which could last up to six months.

“We wouldn’t mind any of the rules if we knew the rate of infection would drop - but it’s a very hard pill to swallow when you know a lot of businesses aren’t going to survive this and the rate of infection isn’t going to go down,” he said. “We’ve done everything: we’ve rolled with every punch, we’ve been checked by licensing and by independent bodies to check we’re COVID-secure, and it still feels like what we’re doing has been demonised – and it’s a great shame.”

Many in Liverpool’s hospitality industry are finding it hard to understand why they are being closed when, according to Public Health England, just 5 percent of cases were passed on in pubs or restaurants.


David added: “People are just confused. When you hear pubs and bars are closing, you think of the biggest pub chain, Wetherspoon’s, and they are allowed to stay open [because of their food offering]. You just think, ‘There’s something not right about this.’ A lot of people are quite confused why it’s just Liverpool City Region in Tier 3, when places like Nottingham aren’t.”

Because they serve substantial meals, Rob and David’s venues will remain open. This isn’t the case for Liverpool’s gyms and leisure centres, which are now closed until further notice. Connor O’Brien owns ABS, which has two gyms in the Liverpool City Region. He started out offering personal training sessions in his parents’ shed, and over the past 12 years he’s built a reputation for his “body transformation” programmes, branching out to open a third site in Manchester.

Connor OBrien.jpeg

Connor O'Brien. Photo courtesy of interviewee.

Like so many gym owners who have been left reeling by the announcement, Connor pointed to the impact the closure of gyms will have on people’s mental health. He said: “People come to us if they’re working from home, and it’s a place they can relieve that stress. They’re living and working in the same place, and only leaving the house to go to the gym. It gives you that break. People aren’t going to be able to train outside with the weather being worse and nights getting darker. People aren’t going to leave the house.”

After being shut down in March as part of the national lockdown, Connor said that having to close the doors on ABS again is “devastating”. He said: “The clients felt safe in our gyms; we had all the trainers wearing masks, hand sanitising stations, we were wiping down all the equipment after every use. We’ve had to take the bounce back loans, but we have to pay those back and it’s not free money. We’ve never been run on debt, so for the first time to run on debt is disheartening.”


For Connor, the real sticking point is the data, which he correctly points out is good for gyms. UK Active has reported that out of 22 million gym visits since reopening, there have only been 78 confirmed cases of coronavirus among customers. The point was raised in Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram’s press conference on Tuesday, when regional leaders made clear they were given “no choice” over whether to shut down gyms as part of their discussions with central government.

For Liverpool, the feeling of being dealt an unfair hand is a reminder of Tory policies of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was urged to abandon the city to a fate of “managed decline” following the 1981 Toxteth Riots.

While Liverpool isn’t quite being left to rot, thanks to a support package that’s been agreed upon for affected businesses, regional leaders like Steve Rotheram and Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson have said they want to see that support go further in helping shore up the local economy.

As David Williams pointed out: “A lot of people are scared about Liverpool going backwards. We’ve made such big strides since the 80s – the city is booming and has such an amazing food and drink scene, and it’s just such a welcoming city anyway that this is heartbreaking. It’s one of those things, though, where, if anyone can do this, it’s Liverpool.”