THE Scottish Government has long had an ambivalent attitude towards alcohol. On one hand, it recognises that Scots consume more than we should and is helping us cut back. Supermarket early birds and night owls can’t buy a bottle of wine with their groceries. Minimum pricing is another health-promoting wheeze.

Yet the Scotch whisky industry is considered a jewel in the nation’s economy. Hence last year’s tantrum over the 25% US tariff on single malts and the consequent 30% fall in sales. The surge in Scottish gin exports is hailed as an example of Scottish entrepreneurship.

There’s a contradictory message that seems to say, cut domestic consumption, but encourage foreigners to down as much of our booze as possible. It’s hardly an ethical position and reminiscent of the tobacco industry exporting lung disease to developing countries when the home market shrunk significantly.

Confusion about the place of alcohol has been apparent in the Government’s Covid strategy. The closure of pubs is represented as the end of civilisation as we know it. Their reopening was prioritised over schools and gymnasiums. Ministers must be wide-eyed innocents if they didn’t anticipate what would happen. As my father put it, when the drink’s in, the wit’s oot. It wasn’t long before Aberdonians had to thole a further lockdown as a direct result of an outbreak traced to a local bar. At long last the government has recognised that risky and irresponsible behaviour increase in proportion to the length of time bars are open. The 10pm deadline is eminently sensible. Why do we need pubs at 3am anyway?

The drinks and hospitality industries are undoubtedly economically important. Job losses at Wetherspoons and Whitbread are regrettable, but the haste to reopen the sector in mid-crisis sent out the wrong message. Things were far from normal. The same criticism can be levelled at the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative. It was almost perverse to spend £522 million to spread waistlines, if not the virus.

En passant, it’s remarkable how the UK government found a forest of money trees to support the hospitality sector. Those of us who were around in the 1980s will recall a Tory prime minister who was not for turning when it came to saving hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs in engineering, ship building and mining.

As we look down the barrel at another pandemic peak, we can only hope that the government has learned its lesson. If pubs are too important to close, let’s restrict their hours for as long as it takes. Most of us enjoy a pint, but it’s not a matter of life and death. Defeating Covid is.

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