Rumours and threats: what happened when Covid-19 shut our pubs

Tom Wall
·7-min read

Mark Wilson’s first visit to the pub in months started perfectly. The 30-year-old met some of his closest friends in a vaping bar, Vape Escape, near the windswept seafront in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset. “I was glad to be seeing people and getting a pint in a pub again,” he says. “We watched the Man United game and they won – so I was in a good mood.”

As the Saturday evening wore on, the group moved on to another pub in the quiet seaside resort, about a 45-minute drive from Bristol. The six friends moved back and forth between the two pubs before calling it a night. “I was pretty merry,” says Wilson. “But it was all good.”

Yet everything changed when Wilson (not his real name) arrived at his parents’ home in the town just after 1am. He opened an email from NHS Test and Trace, which had arrived at 12:30am. It revealed he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Where the pubs are.

“It was a heart-in-mouth moment,” he says. “It was pure shock. I immediately texted the people I had been with and the next morning I let the pubs know.”

Wilson had gone for a test before his return to work in a shop in the town. He had no symptoms and no reason to think he might have come into contact with the virus, but was worried he might catch it serving customers. “I thought: I’ll take a test so I’d know if I got it at work,” he says.

News of his positive result reached the co-owner of Vape Escape, Leanne Underhill, first. Underhill, 40, closed the bar straightaway. She made a series of desperate calls to Somerset County Council and the police before finally getting through to NHS Test and Trace. “They asked me what I had done and took my postcode – that was it. They didn’t take any other details,” she says, sitting at a table in her recently deep-cleaned bar. “We were essentially left to deal with it ourselves.”

That was her only interaction with the service, which is headed by the former TalkTalk chief executive and Tory peer Dido Harding. “My perception was that businesses keep all the contact details and then pass them on if there’s an outbreak,” says Underhill. “But that’s not what happened.”

Instead, Underhill and another member of staff spent Sunday contacting the 42 people who had been in the bar on Saturday. She even took it upon herself to examine CCTV to identify the people that had close contact with Wilson. “People were massively worried. We are a little town – we don’t expect these kinds of things to happen,” she says. No one advised her what to say to her anxious regulars.

Later that evening, Underhill drove three members of staff 23 miles to a testing facility in Taunton. She then carried out a deep clean of the premises, working through the night.

“NHS Test and Trace couldn’t even tell me if I needed to test the staff,” she says. All the tests, including hers, came back negative early on Monday.

The other pub visited by Wilson’s group, the Lighthouse, is yet to reopen. The landlady, Jess Green, closed on Monday and, like Underhill, contacted 90 people who had visited on Saturday herself. “We didn’t have to phone anyone – it should have been Test and Trace,” she says, sitting in the empty bar with its one-way system still taped to the floor. “We chose to do it off our own backs because we knew it was the quickest way for our customers to know the truth.”

However, wild, unfounded rumours were starting to spread around the town, fuelled by fear and anger on social media. Some claimed Wilson had known he was infected before heading out or that he worked in a care home. Others swore he had visited every pub in the town. His identity became an open secret, discussed in cafes, shops and street corners. Comments branding him “totally irresponsible”, “ignorant and selfish” and calling for him “to be jailed for not listening” appeared on the social media pages of the two pubs.

Wilson, who suffers from anxiety, came off Facebook to escape what he felt was a torrent of abuse. “I couldn’t handle seeing it,” he says. “People were posting that I already knew I had it and stuff like that. But I would never go out knowing I had it – or even if I thought I might have it.”

Avon and Somerset police even had to speak to one person who sent a social media message that was “threatening in nature”. “Someone posted ‘I can’t wait to see him’ on Facebook,” says Wilson. “The police went around and spoke to him. He apologised and said he had lost a family member to coronavirus and had been drinking.”

In the midst of all this, Wilson spoke to NHS Test and Trace for just over an hour, detailing his movements over the last couple of weeks. “I ran through everything I could remember with them,” he says. The service then got in touch with his close contacts and asked them to self-isolate.

Underhill and her family were also hounded, with some in the town furious that she had reopened the bar on Monday. She claims her 18-year-old daughter fled from a supermarket in the town after other shoppers yelled that she was “infected” and should be in isolation. It got so bad that Underhill resigned from her other job as an HR manager for a manufacturing company on Tuesday. “I’m having to shield my staff from abuse and look after my family. There’s no way at the moment I can do all of that while working full time,” she says.

These reactions worry Somerset’s director of public health, Trudi Grant. She says people should not be discouraged from coming forward for testing. “It is really concerning,” she says. “We want people to feel as though they can get a test and notify the right people at the right time. If they feel as though they can’t do that, then that isn’t going to be helpful to us in managing the local epidemic or the national pandemic.”

He’s become public enemy number one. But he didn’t go out deliberately with the virus

Andrew Lowe, pubgoer

Grant says that Wilson and the two pubs actually deserve thanks. “He acted responsibly as an individual,” she says. “The businesses took a very precautionary approach. They did their bit.”

She adds that business owners should not need to contact customers if they get a positive case. Her team will be circulating further information to local businesses in the coming weeks. “They don’t have to phone around,” she says. “They should call Public Health England, who will identify with them who is a close contact.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We would like to reassure the public that anyone identified as a close contact of the positive case will be contacted by the NHS Test and Trace service and advised to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they aren’t displaying symptoms. The pub has been advised to take appropriate public health measures to ensure it is safe for other staff and customers to attend as normal.”

Back in Burnham-on-Sea, feelings are still running high. One woman in the Somerset & Dorset pub, who declined to give her name, said: “Apparently he went out knowing he should have waited at home until he got the results.” (In fact, NHS advice is to self-isolate if you have received a positive test result or have symptoms of coronavirus, or if either of those things is true of someone in your household or support bubble.)

Other drinkers in the town centre pub – which itself had to close on Thursday night after another individual tested positive – are quick to defend Wilson. “He’s become public enemy number one,” says Andrew Lowe, 47. “But he didn’t go out deliberately with the virus. He didn’t know he had it and as soon as he did know he notified all the pubs he visited. He did the right thing.”

Wilson is recovering from the ordeal with the support of his family and friends. Yet he fears his treatment could make others in his position think twice about coming forward: “If anyone else in Burnham gets the virus now they’re not going to want to make it public because they could get the same kind of abuse.”