COVID & pubs: rules often get ignored

Researchers in Scotland find problems - unsurprisingly - where alcohol is involved...
23 February 2021

Interview with 

Niamh Fitzgerald, University of Stirling


The bar of a pub.


Lots of people in locked-down countries are desperately looking forward to sharing a pint at the pub again. Clearly, when this becomes possible, it will involve safety measures to reduce transmission; but will we even pay attention? Researchers from Scotland have published a study that finds problems, unsurprisingly, where alcohol is involved. Martin Khechara spoke to Niamh Fitzgerald about the research...

Niamh - We went in 29 licensed premises and spent a couple of hours in each one, observing the behaviour of customers and staff, and how the new measures that were introduced by the government were operating in practice. Despite significant efforts from the operators of bars and pubs, there were risks of COVID-19 transmission tha still existed in a substantial minority of premises.

Martin - You actually went into these places to observe what was going on... were the people there undercover or something like that?

Niamh - They were just acting as normal customers. We had pairs of people going into each premises, they were part of the same household; and they had a drink, ordered some food if there was food available, and spent a couple of hours there. And while they were there, they were just keeping their eyes open for: what was the layout of the premises and the distancing, and how did customers and staff behave. They made notes on their mobile phones while they were in there and they wrote up their reports, and in particular, the stories of any incidents they saw where there was potential risk of transmission.

Martin - What did you actually find out?

Niamh - Most premises had made substantial changes to the layout of their premises when they reopened. They also had new signage in place in a lot of premises, and there were hand sanitising stations available. But we also find that in most premises, it was difficult to avoid having pinch points: narrow areas at entrances, or in corridors, or in toilets, where it was hard for customers to avoid passing close by other customers. There were more serious incidents in quite a substantial minority of premises, where customers were embracing or mixing with other tables; they were interacting with staff for prolonged periods. It'd be easy to paint this study as being a very small sample size and that we were looking for problems, but actually that's really not the case. And it just, I think, shows what other people are saying: it's not really very surprising that when people are drinking, alcohol makes them less likely to want to comply with guidance, and also makes it more difficult for them to comply, because it affects their judgment, and their hearing, and so on. So what we would conclude is that even though there was clearly a desire on the part of operators to operate safely, that was challenging to do as everybody tried to adjust to this new guidance and the new environment.

Martin - I think the big question is: can pubs ever actually be safe? Should they even reopen?

Niamh - I mean, life is not safe. Pubs weren't safe, shops weren't safe, homes weren't safe before the pandemic. There was always a risk of catching a flu or a cold from someone. I don't think we can ever exist in a world where we're trying for everything to be a hundred percent safe, or we'd never do anything. So it's always going to be about what level of risk is acceptable. And clearly before the pandemic, it was felt that it was acceptable for us to go to pubs, and for there to be a risk that you would catch a cold or catch the flu in a pub. That was deemed to be an acceptable risk. So there will need to be a reassessment of what we're happy to live with as risk, and it's always going to be difficult, because if you try to aim for low risk or no risk, sometimes you end up with missing out on a lot of the things that people enjoy doing. It's a really difficult balance to strike, but important not to talk about things being safe, I think, because that's an unrealistic bar to set.


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