30 November 2020

The Covid war on pubs is based on the flimsiest of evidence

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The new tier system will close or severely incapacitate pubs in the 99% of the country that will be in Tiers 2 and 3. This amounts to carpet bombing the pub trade. Some 25,000 hospitality venues have closed permanently this year and 30,000 have yet to reopen. Although grants are available to businesses that are rendered temporarily unviable by the tier restrictions, these often fall short of what is needed to pay rent, debt, taxes and other costs.

Since the hospitality industry is Britain’s third biggest employer, with 3.2 million workers before the pandemic hit, you might expect the Government’s evidence to be strong. It is anything but. On Friday, the Government published a short policy paper titled ‘Transmission risk in the hospitality sector’ which ignores all the counter-measures introduced to make hospitality venues low-risk, and relies on a handful of studies cobbled together by SAGE which have no relevance to the British pub trade as it currently operates.

Citing SAGE, the policy paper correctly notes that “higher risk contacts are those that are close, prolonged, indoors, face-to-face, in poorly ventilated and/or crowded spaces, or involve ‘loud’ activities”. It then claims that these risk factors are “all prevalent in the hospitality sector”.

Have any members of SAGE been to a pub since July? Tables are spaced out, live music is a distant memory, background music and football commentary is forbidden, windows and doors are left open, masks have to be worn when not seated and it is table service only. Don’t they pay attention to their own regulations? 

The policy paper then repeats SAGE’s favourite trope about the old tier system not working. Evidence from Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and other former hotspots shows that this is simply not true. All of them saw case numbers fall significantly in October under the old Tier 2 restrictions. By the time Nottingham was put in Tier 3 on October 30, the number of daily infections had fallen from over 600 to less than 200. The truth is that England was rushed into lockdown before the local restrictions were given a fair chance.

The policy paper then turns to epidemiological studies, citing a SAGE report from October 22 which includes a brief section on hospitality. The report cites plenty of studies, but closer inspection reveals that none of them suggest that pubs or bars are particularly dangerous and many of them dont mention pubs or bars at all. Those which do mostly refer to outbreaks in Asia in the early days of the pandemic when there was little or no social distancing.

For example, one study cited looks at SARS-CoV-2 transmission in nightclubs in Seoul. Nobody is seriously calling for nightclubs to reopen. Another study looks at super-spreader events in Indonesia and mentions traditional markets, religious gatherings and wedding parties as possible locations for such transmission. It doesn’t even mention pubs or bars. Still another study discusses a super-spreading event in Vietnam which resulted from an infected person partying until 2.30am in a crowded bar in Ho Chi Minh City on St Patricks Day (March 17). The relevance of this to British pubs under current regulations is limited, to put it mildly.

If there is a lesson from the SAGE report, it is to keep all indoor venues well ventilated and ensure there is social distancing. Pubs have been doing this for months, which probably explains why there have been so few reports of the virus being transmitted in the pub sector. A SAGE report which looked specifically at ventilation concluded that “the risk of aerosol transmission is likely to be low if the ventilation rate achieves current design standards” of 8-10 litres per second per person. The vast majority of pubs already achieve this.

The policy paper provides no justification for keeping gyms and places of worship open in Tier 3 while closing the hospitality sector down and it does not even attempt to justify the requirement that meals be served with drinks in tier 2. That unscientific and vindictive policy alone will lead to the unnecessary closure of thousands of wet pubs’ and other licensed venues, such as snooker halls, bingo halls and casinos. Businesses which could be operating safely will be forced to furlough their workforce and accept government grants to stand idle, possibly until Easter. By the time the furlough scheme ends in March, the venues will have long since collapsed and the workers will not have jobs to go back to.

And for what? To satisfy the zealots at SAGE who are intent on making pubs the scapegoat for the transmission of a virus that continues to be mostly spread in the home, in hospitals and in nursing homes.

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Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute for Economic Affairs.