Following England’s abject attempts at getting a contact tracing app up and running, we need to try something different as we start to exit lockdown. Hopefully we will see more focus on getting manual contact tracing working in local places, including pubs.

The UK’s newspapers report that “Pubs, bars and restaurants will have to take the names and contact details of customers before they are allowed in”. The UK Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, discussed the idea on one of our Sunday morning politics shows*.

Meanwhile there are expectations that more pubs will have apps that allow people to order a drink without going to a crowded bar. The Prime Minister has said that only table service will be allowed. Some civil servants have apparently termed this ‘appy hour’**. 

There are three different needs here – the ability to order a drink for a table, the ability to log contact information for who was in what pub at what time, and the ability to provide contact information to contact tracing teams – but I expect many places will combine them into one ‘thing’. It reduces the effort for pubs and the millions of people that use them every week.

It is good that England is (finally!) getting a grasp on the basics of social distancing and contact tracing, but now we need to learn how to do it good enough. Unfortunately, I fear that, as with the contact tracing app, we will end up with another adversarial and national fight over how to do this.

I fear lots of discussion of national tech solutions that could work for the entire country with little understanding of the needs of different people and pubs, the relationships between pubs and their customers, or thought about what data and apps pubs already collect and use.

Two very useful twitter threads that were started by Frederike Kalthenauer and Rory-Cellan Jones contain links to some of the stuff that is already happening in other countries.

Yesterday I thought I’d take a walk round our town, Whitley Bay – home of the famous Spanish City to look at the many closed pubs. Here are some pictures and notes to help other people understand the context in this one English town.

It might be useful if your interest is in contact tracing, building an app, pub app policy, data protection, or simply picking a pub to go to in Whitley Bay.

The Fire Station

People who leave Google reviews have left 1510 reviews and scored it 3.8/5.

It is a Wetherspoons pub, one of about 900 in the UK. I’m partial to their steak and kidney pudding. It is excellent value for money.

Wetherspoons have an app which famously allows other people to buy you drinks as well as ordering them yourself. Wetherspoons use data to optimise their business, for example their prices are tuned to local competition. They deleted their email database when GDPR came in.  It seems reasonable to expect their app to start collecting contact tracing information.

The boss of Wetherspoons is strongly pro-Brexit and has used beer mats and the pub magazine to promote the UK’s exit from the European Union. It has an, um…, challenging relationship with many of its staff.

Issues like these will mean that some people would not trust Wetherspoons with data about their pub visits, but I expect that people who do not trust Wetherspoons don’t go there anyway.

Most Wetherspoons customers will give them accurate data because they trust Wetherspoons and they trust the app that they already use

T e Victoria

People who leave Google reviews have left 203 reviews and scored it 3.9/5.

Part of the local Blackrose chain. Lots of TVs for sport. Always busy with, mostly male, day time drinkers.

Their window has a new poster up advertising an app. There was no link for me to try it.

I expect that they will get a licence to use one of the many pub apps that will emerge on the market. I expect that many of the customers will simply shout when they want a drink.

I also expect that lots of their customers will either refuse to give contact information or provide false names, probably the names of ex-Newcastle players.

Despite that the pub’s staff will know most people’s first names, jobs and who they drink with. Good pub staff know things like that. That could make for some interesting conversations if a local contact tracing team came knocking on the door.

The Fat Ox

People who leave Google reviews have left 275 reviews and scored it 4.3/5.

The Fat Ox is part of the Craft Union chain which has over 300 pubs. It has a couple of TVs for sport. There is pub-rock, ska, and soft rock on the weekends. 

Their windows did not have a new poster up advertising an app.

Despite their larger size I would expect the Craft Union chain to take the same app as the Blackrose chain, while the Fat Ox will have the same challenges with customers, false data and contact tracing as The Victoria.

The Dog and Rabbit

People who leave Google reviews have left 290 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

Independent pub running out of an old shop. Brews its own beer and stocks other microbrews

Designed for middle-aged drinkers – a large proportion of whom will be members of Camra, the UK’s campaign for real ale. I am not a member of Camra but can occasionally be seen here, quietly reading a book in the corner.

The pub has a sign saying “we have no wi-fi, talk to each other”. Mobile phone signals work perfectly well and no one stops you if you use your phone. If I remember correctly the till is manual. It’s a quiet pub.

I’d expect people to use hand signals to order beer, the staff to have a decent idea of who was in the pub on which night, and for there to be a manual book for people to sign in and out. Just like they have a manual book for tracking accidents.

Most of the names will be accurate, if a little hard to read.

Image: the author’s mockup of a contact tracing book based on the type of accident books that exist in pubs, restaurants and museums up and down the country. As you might be able to tell Art was my worst subject at school.

The Fox and Finch

People who leave Google reviews have left 290 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

It is an independent pub that seems designed for middle-aged and middle-class people wearing reasonably smart clothes. I had a sausage roll there once, it wasn’t good. I haven’t been back.

I expect that they will get a licence to use one of the many pub drink apps that are on the market or that will emerge.

Most of their customers will use it and provide accurate data.

The Split Chimp

People who leave Google reviews have left 469 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

Sister pub of the Split Chimp in Newcastle. A real ale pub with good beer and, if you’re lucky, excellent pork pies. It has the best pub music in Whitley Bay***.

It has younger customers than the Dog and Rabbit. Because of its location – it is part of the revamped Spanish City on the seafront – its customers also include both dog walkers and people who are visiting the seaside.

They run their till on an iPad. I expect that whatever software they use will be upgraded to support drink ordering apps and contact tracing.

Most of their customers will give them accurate data, because the app will be designed to encourage people to provide it with accurate data to feed the software supplier’s machines.


Image from TripAdvisor

People who leave Google reviews have left 897 reviews and scored it 3.9/5.

Beefeater is a big chain of pub restaurants owned by the large Whitbread organisation. My wife is confident that this pub does the best value for money steaks in Whitley Bay. If you time it right then you can get a great table to watch football matches. It is also on the seafront and connected to a hotel so gets a lot of visitors.

Beefeater run a reward scheme where you get points for how much you spend. If you signup to their email list you can learn of special promotions.

I’m not aware of them having an app. I expect Whitbread have got a team of staff and suppliers working to develop something and will have it ready to launch when the pubs reopen. I doubt the app will be as good as the Wetherspoons one.

Most of their customers will give it accurate data, because the app will be designed to encourage people to provide it accurate data to feed Whitbread’s marketing machine.

The Rockcliffe Arms

Image from

People who leave Google reviews have left 244 reviews and scored it 4.4/5.

Part of a small local chain, SJF****. 

The Rockcliffe is a classic British backstreet boozer. Once a week there is a meat raffle. Scampi (flavour) fries and bacon (flavour) rashers are always available. It always seems to be full of people who’ve stopped off while taking the dog for a walk, people playing backgammon, and people having a quick drink after work before going home to eat dinner.

I’d expect them to try to take the same app as The Fat Ox and The Victoria, but their customers will end up using the same manual methods as The Dog and Rabbit.

What can we learn?

These are not all of the pubs in Whitley Bay. Far from it. I didn’t even mention Berties Club (with its famous karaoke), the Nord Bottle Shop (which has a backroom to drink a bottle or two in), or the Whitley Bay Brewing Company. But hopefully this gives people a taste of the variety that exists in most small towns.

The pubs are a mix of large chains, small chains and independents. That will affect the type of apps that they try to build or buy. The customers in the pubs vary and have differing relationships with the pub and the staff that work there. Those dynamics will affect how customers behave when they use apps, and whether or not staff try to persuade them to use them as they are designed.

Within this single town there is a range of different contextual relationships, problems and opportunities. That will affect contact tracing and efforts to contain the pandemic. 

I expect that a range of different approaches to suit those different local contexts will give a better outcome than any national tech solution. I suspect that the UK’s many pub landlords, pub customers, and local public health directors would agree.

So, if you’re in a national conversation about pubs, apps and contact tracing and thinking about a single national solution then I’d suggest that you instead start thinking about how to shape and regulate a market with many local solutions.

* It is not clear from these briefings whether the idea is only for England, or for all four UK nations. After all, public health is a devolved matter. I expect it is only England.

** A phrase that always give me a Housemartins earworm

*** That means that it has music which suits my tastes, lots of 70s and 80s punk, new-wave and indie with the occasional bit of political hip-hop

**** They also run The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle. A stunningly lovely pub that featured in the recent film Stan and Ollie as the hotel where Laurel and Hardy stayed when they performed in Newcastle