Pubs might not be able to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, scientists have warned after observing risks in licensed premises last summer.
Scottish researchers examined Covid-19 measures in licensed premises in the first study of its kind in the world and found alarming results.
They say blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sale bans could be more likely to be deemed necessary to control the spread if risks cannot be reduced through support or sanctions for pubs and other premises.
Their findings will inform governments, public health experts and policymakers in the UK and overseas as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions.
The project was conducted in May to August last year in a wide range of licensed premises which reopened following the first nationwide lockdown, operating under Government guidance intended to reduce transmission risk.
Researchers found that despite making physical and operational changes on reopening, practices were variable and discovered a number of incidents of greater concern.
These included close physical interaction between customers and with staff, which often involved alcohol intoxication and were rarely effectively stopped by staff.
Study lead author Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, said: “We interviewed business owners and representatives prior to re-opening to understand the challenges being faced.
“When pubs reopened last July, following the initial UK lockdown, our team visited premises to observe how government measures designed to reduce transmission risks in hospitality settings were working in practice, including any incidents likely to increase those risks.
“Businesses expressed an intention to work within the guidance, but there were commercial and practical challenges to making this a reality.
“Upon re-opening, substantial efforts to change the layout of bars were observed and appeared to be working well in many premises, but problems were common including staff not wearing personal protective equipment, or with the management of toilets, queues and other ‘pinch points’.
“We also observed several incidents of greater concern, including customers shouting, embracing or repeatedly interacting closely with several households and staff, which were rarely addressed by staff.”
The team concluded that potential significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in at least a minority of bars, especially when customers were intoxicated, despite workers’ efforts and government guidance.
Prof Fitzgerald added: “Closures of premises can eliminate these risks, but also cause significant hardship for business owners and staff.”
Responding to the publication of the study, Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG) said: “It’s a farce that this report is even on the table for discussion. It is an out-of-date witch-hunt, that is wholly unreflective of our industry, and while Scottish Hospitality businesses are left to fail daily, the government has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds on a six-month old study based on a tiny number (0.17%) of Scotland’s bars and restaurants.
“In reality we are talking about just a handful of premises. From those 29 targeted, criticism is levelled at in their own words a ‘substantial minority of observed bars.’ You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out that basing the closure of a £10.5bn industry on this sham of a report would be ludicrous.
“Yet again, the government has failed to listen and work with our industry. Rather than haemorrhaging cash – when businesses and employees need a financial lifeline – time and money would be better spent on working with the sector to reopen safely and allowing us to help rebuild the economy.
“Targeting the few bars and restaurants which are breaking the rules is the proper and proportionate way to proceed, but the vast majority have been adhering religiously to every regulation that has been introduced because we realise the very future of our industry is at stake. Where was this report last autumn when we could have educated the rogue operators on what they were doing wrong and corrected it, rather than releasing it so many months later?
“Our sector has a vital part to play in combating this virus. We have bent over backwards to ensure staff and customers are protected, with huge efforts being made by the vast majority of responsible operators in social distancing, PPE, track and trace and other hygiene measures, and all without any financial help from the Scottish Government.”
Researchers note that Scottish Government guidance does not go into detail on exactly how bar or security staff might be expected to effectively and safely intervene in customer breaches of distancing, or in the management of situations which would normally require close contact between customers and staff.
The research was funded by the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office, and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.