Pub chain Wetherspoons recorded its biggest loss on record as the business suffered heavily from the Covid-19 restrictions to hit the sector.
The company has only seen losses in three of its 37 years – in 1984, 2020 and 2021.
But the 12 months to July 25 were its worst to date, sinking to a pre-tax loss of £154.7m, up from £34.1m a year ago. Sales were down from £1.26bn to £772.6m.
Founder and chairman Tim Martin said he remained hopeful for the future and customers were starting to return since lockdown restrictions eased in the summer.
However, filling jobs was becoming difficult in some areas – particularly “staycation” locations in different parts of the country.
He also attacked the Government for its handling of the sector during the pandemic and claimed the use of lockdown restrictions were “a threat to civil society and democracy”.
In the past nine weeks sales are now just 8.7% below the levels in the same period pre-pandemic. This has improved further still, and were just down by 6.4% in the past four weeks.
But airport pubs remain subdued – down 47.3% – pushing the overall figures lower as a result.
The chief is now in a race to fill vacancies and pointed out the total employee numbers averaged 39,025 in the financial year, which has now increased to 42,003 – suggesting recruitment is going well.
He said: “On average, Wetherspoon has received a reasonable number of applications for vacancies, as indicated by the increase in employee numbers, but some areas of the country, especially “staycation” areas in the West Country and elsewhere, have found it hard to attract staff.
“During the pandemic, the pressure on pub managers and staff has been particularly acute, with a number of nationwide and regional pub closures and reopenings, often with very little warning, each of which resulted in different regulations.”
The founder added: “In spite of these obstacles, Wetherspoon is cautiously optimistic about the outcome for the financial year, on the basis that there is no further resort to lockdowns or onerous restrictions.”
Pubs have been one of the hardest-hit sectors from the pandemic, facing lengthy closures and rule changes, although they have also been entitled to Government support in furlough scheme payments, VAT holidays and local authority grants.
They are now facing difficulties with supply chain shortages with HGV drivers.
Mr Martin did not comment on the shortages or any impact it is having on Wetherspoons, nor did the high profile Brexit supporter try to play down links between the HGV shortages with the UK leaving the EU.
Instead, he turned his ire on the Government and said: “The biggest threat to the pub industry, and also, inter alia, to restaurants, theatres, cinemas, airlines and travel companies, relates to the precedent set by the Government for the use of lockdowns and draconian restrictions, imposed under emergency powers.
“This threat, which is also a threat to civil society and democracy, has been regularly articulated by many commentators, including the former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption.”