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Explainer: What's the thinking behind banning pubs and restaurants in Scotland from serving alcohol indoors?

Pubs, restaurants and cafés in most of Scotland are to be barred from selling alcohol indoors for more than two weeks.

The Grill pub in Aberdeen, Scotland in early August
The Grill pub in Aberdeen, Scotland in early August
Image: Andrew Milligan/PA via PA Images

NICOLA STURGEON YESTERDAY announced that pubs, restaurants and cafés in most of Scotland are to be barred from selling alcohol indoors for more than two weeks, in an effort to curb Covid-19. 

From 6pm tomorrow, pubs and restaurants will only be able to open indoor spaces between 6am and 6pm and will be barred from serving alcohol within them – though they can sell drinks outside until 10pm.

However, five areas – Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire & Arran, Lothian, and Forth Valley – face stricter restrictions, with pubs to shut to all but takeaway customers for the same period. 

Cafes will be allowed to open until 6pm, as long as alcohol isn’t sold, the First Minister said, to counter social isolation.

Firstly, what’s the current situation regarding Covid cases in Scotland?

Coinciding with Sturgeon’s announcement, the Scottish government published the evidence of its senior clinical advisers which guided the new restrictions. 

The evidence paper noted an increase in infections across Scotland, but highlighted several areas across the central belt that were of particular concern.

“Several health board areas including Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire and Lothian have been tracking rates in excess of 100 positive cases per 100,000 population over the past seven days,” the clinical advisers said in the paper. 

The advisers also raised concerns over neighbouring areas in Ayrshire and Arran and Fort Valley, which are showing an increase in excess of 55 cases per 100,000, “suggesting there may be a ‘ripple’ effect spreading from existing areas of high case numbers and growth”. 

To compare, the incidence rate per 100,000 from 23 September to midnight 6 October was 171.4 in Dublin, 312.2 in Donegal and 257.4 in Monaghan.  

scotland-coronavirus Source: PA Graphics

What’s the evidence behind closing the pubs?

The evidence paper outlined that Scotland is “continuing to closely track” the situation in France with a four-week lag and Spain with a six-week lag. 

Scotland currently has half the number of new infections as France and a quarter of those as Spain. 

Death rates in Spain increased significantly in mid-September and are now at a level 10 times the rate of Scotland. 

Both France and Spain have introduced strict new measures to reduce their rising numbers of infections and deaths, including the closure of all bars in Paris for two weeks from 6 October. 

Bars and restaurants in Marseille closed for 15 days on 30 September and additional restrictions have also been put in place in Madrid, with bars and restaurants closing by 10pm.

The evidence papers goes on to outline the role of hospitality in suppressing Covid-19. 

The hospitality industry was essentially closed in Scotland in late March in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19 until 15 July, when the country entered Phase Three of its road map.

Phase Three meant households could meet up to four other households at a time outdoors, up to 15 people in total. A household could also meet up to two other households indoors at a time, up to eight people in total. 

Modelling of the R rate at that time shows that around three weeks later, it rose above 1. This is when the virus begins to spread more rapidly. 

“While this cannot be entirely attributed to hospitality, it is likely to have played a significant role,” the the clinical advisers said in the paper. 

From details of interviews that have been completed as part of Test and Protect, Scotland’s contact tracing programme, up to 26% of individuals who have tested positive from Covid-19 between the end of July and the beginning of October reported “exposure” to hospitality settings, such as pubs, restaurants or cafés.

All ages are included but of the 26%, half were in the 20-39 age group. 

It was noted in the paper that the data does not indicate where people who have tested positive were infected. 

“However, it does highlight that people who have been infected have been in hospitality settings where they could have spread the virus to others. As the levels of virus in the community rise, this consideration becomes more important,” the clinical advisors said.

Hospitality presents one of the highest risks of spreading the virus, the advisors said, as this setting generally “involves people of different ages with different individual risk profiles mixing with other households, or being seated in close proximity to other households, for more than 15 minutes”. 

This advice was taken into account when deciding to close all pubs and licensed cafés in the health health board areas with significantly high rates of Covid-19. 

However, as noted above, pubs and restaurants elsewhere in Scotland will be permitted to open indoor spaces between 6am and 6pm and will be barred from serving alcohol inside. 

Comprehensive detail was not provided by the clinical advisors as to why alcohol should be barred in these premises, but they did note in the paper that “as people will generally visit with family or friends, they will naturally be less concerned about distancing and this behaviour will also be influenced by the disinhibiting impact of alcohol”. 

coronavirus-tue-sep-22-2020 People sitting in n outdoor restaurant area in The Grassmarket in Edinburgh, Scotland Source: Jane Barlow via PA Images

Have other countries taken similar approaches?  

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As noted above, both France and Spain have introduced strict new measures to reduce their rising numbers of infections and deaths, including the closure of all bars in Paris for two weeks from 6 October. 

Bars and restaurants in Marseille closed for 15 days on 30 September and additional restrictions have also been put in place in Madrid, with bars and restaurants closing by 10pm.

Here in Ireland, which is entirely in Level 3 at present, all indoor dining in pubs and restaurants is banned. Outdoor seating and service is allowed outside restaurants and wet pubs. 

Additionally, web pubs (those which don’t serve food) remain closed in Dublin. 

An idea currently being floated by a number of government TDs – although not believed to be a realistic runner – is the curbing of opening hours for off-licences. 

Outlining the case on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne yesterday, junior minister Patrick O’Donovan said alcohol consumption was having an impact on the spread of Covid-19 

He said: “We are asking people to exercise common sense here. When you see slabs of cans being taken home, you know that they are not being taken home for an after-dinner aperitif. We cannot pretend that house parties aren’t going on when they clearly are.”

The government is understood not to be considering curbs on opening hours for off-licences at this time, as it’s believed that it would have little effect as people would simply make their purchases earlier in the day.

Commenting on this issue at last night’s press briefing at the Department of Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan noted that after a few alcoholic drinks “it just gets harder to follow … advice and to keep social distance”. 

“There’s no question that alcohol has played a very important part in helping to create the kind of social circumstances that this virus thrives on,” Dr Holohan said. He added:

This virus loves alcohol.

Similar to the suggestion to curbing off licence opening hours in Ireland, South Africa in March imposed a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products, when the country went into a strict lockdown in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19. 

Alcohol sales were prohibited to ease pressure on hospitals, allowing doctors in emergency wards to focus on Covid-19 rather than road accidents and other alcohol-related injuries.

These measures were lifted in late August. However, it remains questionable as to whether measures were effective. As of late August, South Africa still had the fifth-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world.  

With reporting by Press Association and AFP

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