Is the closure of pubs in Scotland’s central belt justified?

From Glasgow to London, from Edinburgh to Liverpool, parts of the country are facing tough new restrictions among attempts by leaders to quell a deluge of fresh coronavirus cases.

Still reeling from the economic and psychological toll of nationwide lockdowns earlier this year, both Westminster and devolved governments are attempting to tread a fine line between sustaining a fragile economy and keeping an unrelenting virus in check.

Many of these newly introduced restrictions are aimed squarely at the hospitality sector. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, recently announced a raft of regulations for the country’s central belt, whereby pubs and licensed restaurants must close for two-and-a-half weeks, but can still operate take-aways.

In her speech to the Scottish Parliament explaining the new rules, Sturgeon highlighted the awkward quandary facing European leaders in the midst of long anticipated second wave: to what extent should the economy be sacrificed, even in the short term, to suppress a soaring number of cases.

There is yet to exist an established orthodoxy in answering the issue, but it appears that in the utmost importance of avoiding another spring-style lockdown, pubs, restaurants and music venues will act as the sacrificial lamb. 

Sturgeon has particularly justified the ban on alcohol, suggesting that an inebriated state could “affect people’s willingness to physically distance”, and that the move eliminated “one of the key opportunities the virus has to jump from household to household.”

Employees in the sector are not impressed. Months of closure have left a visible mark on the industry, and while the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme has been supporting workers and businesses in precarious circumstances, the Chancellor has not announced its extension – Scotland’s stringently tight restrictions are likely to be the final blow to the nation’s hospitality sector, signing a death sentence as pub and restaurant owners grapple with almost another three weeks of lost income.

Last week, hospitality staff were cheered on as they dumped disused ice as part of a chilling protest in front of Glasgow City Chambers, a rallying cry against the new rules.

“These measures will sound the death knell for businesses across the hospitality sector, especially pubs and bars,” Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce told The National.

The UK pub chain JD Wetherspoon reported its first loss for the first time in its 36-year existence, leading the group’s chairman, Tim Martin, a staunch critic of UK government’s efforts to handle the pandemic, to denounce local lockdowns as “absolute chaos” and say that the government was “using emergency powers and shooting from the hip”.

It would be remiss of governments to not offer financial support in light of the new rules, particularly given harrowing unemployment numbers released last week. Figures detailed a sharp three year high in unemployment, and a 60 per cent increase among 16 to 24 year olds, the largest source of employment in the hospitality industry.

While the Scottish government has announced an additional £40 million to support businesses in need, each one potentially receiving up to £5000, they will narrowly miss out on the Chancellor’s latest support scheme that starts at the beginning of November, and will pay two-thirds of the wages for business affected by local lockdowns.

The greater question, as to whether there is justifiable evidence for the closure of pubs and restaurants, still remains. Other than a few notable exceptions, such as the Hawthorn Bar in Aberdeen, where 32 people were infected, very few of Britain’s 47,000 pubs have suffered serious outbreaks.

Westminster and the Scottish Government seem to be grasping at the one thing it can control. A Public Health England surveillance report released at the beginning of October outlined that 75.3 per cent of people approached by tracers came into contact with an infected person either in their own or someone else’s home.

Worse yet, only around 5 per cent reported close contact in the setting of a pub, restaurant, or other community contexts. Instead, the nation’s governments are displaying keen avidity to dodge shutting down schools, universities and workplaces, by far the biggest drivers of transmission, with great optimism.

Image: Tim Dennell via Flickr