THE hospitality industry has lambasted a new first-of-its kind study which casts doubt on whether bar owners can effectively prevent Covid-19 transmission after observing "risks" over conduct in Scots licensed premises last summer.

The critical research carried out by the University of Stirling in May to August last year came after a team scrutinised what was going on in 29 bars across Scotland.

And it raised concerns of close physical interaction between customers and with staff, which frequently involved alcohol intoxication and were rarely effectively stopped by staff.

It said "potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars, especially when customers were intoxicated".

And it warned that blanket closures, curfews, or alcohol sales bans are "more likely to be deemed necessary if the risks cannot be acceptably, quickly, and cost-effectively reduced through support and sanctions".

But the new study, the first in the world to examine the operation of COVID-19 measures in licensed premises has been strongly criticised by the Scottish Hospitality Group which described it as an "out-of-date witch-hunt that is wholly unreflective of our industry" and adding: "It’s a farce that this report is even on the table for discussion."

And the British Beer & Pub Association added: “This research, funded by the Scottish Government, was carried out by a health research unit seeking only one outcome."

A university team posed as customers to observe what was going on in bars and pubs in Edinburgh, Clackmannanshire, Perth and Kinross, East Dunbartonshire, Moray and Highland in July, following the initial UK lockdown on March 20 last year.

In Scotland, licensed premises were permitted to reopen indoor spaces from July 15, with strict safety rules in place to minimise the risk of transmission.

The researchers wanted to see how government measures designed to reduce transmission risks in hospitality settings were working in practice, including any incidents likely to increase those risks.

READ MORE: Majority of Scotland's pubs and bars remain on 'life support', industry warns

They expected their results to inform governments, public health experts, and policymakers in the UK and other countries as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, director of the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, who led the research, which was funded by the Scottish Government's chief scientist office said the risks emerged despite the efforts of bar operators and guidance from government.

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She added: "Closures of premises can eliminate these risks, but also cause significant hardship for business owners and staff.”

The study revealed that researchers posing as customers took in what was happening in the 29 bars for up to two hours in July and August.

Incidents deemed to be of greater concern – due to the repeated or continuous nature of the potential risk, were observed in eleven of the venues.

These include various combinations of singing, shouting or playing music, mixing between groups, standing an moving around the bar without distancing, customers taking photographs with other customers and staff and shaking hands or embracing others who did not appear to be in their household.

The research found that notably in all but one of the venues visited in August, customers were witnessed singing loudly or shouting, and with just one example of effective staff intervention to suppress customer noise.

In the majority of premises, no staff intervention in incidents or attempts to enforce restrictions were observed. In some cases, staff intervened in a light-hearted way – for example, by gently or playfully reprimanding customers – but such interventions were described by the researchres as largely ineffective.

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Enforcement by external agencies – such as environmental health or police officers – was not observed in any of the venues.

But Scottish Hospitality Group spokesman Stephen Montgomery said the reality was that the study's conclusions were based on "just a handful of premises" adding: "You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out that basing the closure of a £10.5 billion industry on this sham of a report would be ludicrous.

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"We know that hospitality isn’t a vector and there’s no evidence to support that it is."

He said SHG members alone, which employ over 6000 people, have had only 32 positive cases of Covid-19 among staff since July.

And over the period from July to December 26, staff at SHG premises have worked around 1,150,000 hours, meaning there has been only one confirmed case for every 36,000 hours worked.

"Targeting the few bars and restaurants which are breaking the rules is the proper and proportionate way to proceed, but the vast majority have been adhering religiously to every regulation that has been introduced because we realise the very future of our industry is at stake. Where was this report last autumn when we could have educated the rogue operators on what they were doing wrong and corrected it, rather than releasing it so many months later?

“Our sector has a vital part to play in combating this virus. We have bent over backwards to ensure staff and customers are protected, with huge efforts being made by the vast majority of responsible operators in social distancing, PPE, track and trace and other hygiene measures, and all without any financial help from the Scottish Government.”

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said that after July when pubs re-opened Public Health England data shows just 4% of Covid incidents were linked to hospitality settings, which included restaurants and cafés, not just pubs.

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And in a sector survey conducted in October last year, just 1% of 22,500 pubs, restaurants and hospitality venues said they had been linked by NHS Test and Trace to Covid-19.

“The overwhelming majority of pubs across the UK worked incredibly hard to adapt to the Government guidelines when they first reopened last year. In fact, pubs were commended by the UK Government for their diligence and proactivity in doing so," she said.

According to the study, most venues required customers to provide contact details to support contact tracing, however, nine businesses observed did not – including one venue visited after this was made mandatory by the Scottish Government in August.

While staff wore personal protective equipment (PPE) in most venues, in several, staff wore no PPE, wore masks inappropriately, or removed them to talk to other staff or customers, the researchers found.

They found that venues had introduced new layouts, signage, queuing systems, noise and toilet management, and provided hand sanitising stations – however, stations were infrequently used. Two of the venues routinely administered sanitiser to customers’ hands on entry.

One-way systems were implemented to help regulate the flow of customers – although this measure was sometimes ignored – and pinch points were problematic in nearly all venues, with entrances, corridors, doorways or bar counter areas leading to bottlenecks and people congregating, often unchallenged.

Fewer than half of venues offered table service only – which helped avoid any possibility of queuing for service at the bar – and, in at least one venue observed in July, a continuous queue formed in the one-metre space between tables.

Fewer than half of venues had a basic system - like a sign on a door - in place to limit the number of customers entering toilets.

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And most had no measures to ensure physical distancing inside those areas, with no cubicles or sinks condemned.

Overcrowding and poor physical distancing was also observed to be a problem within toilet areas in some premises.

Professor Fitzgerald said: "Overall, our findings suggest grounds for uncertainty about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm, and alcohol is routinely consumed.

“Despite the efforts of licensed premises, and detailed guidance from government, potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars – especially when customers were intoxicated.

"Blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sales bans are more likely to be deemed necessary to control virus spread, if such risks cannot be acceptably, quickly and cost-effectively reduced through support and/or sanctions for premises operators.

"Such blanket actions may also have benefits in terms of protecting staff from occupational exposure and reducing pressure on emergency services from alcohol-related injuries or disorder.

"However, attention also needs to be paid to the impact of closures on businesses, economic activity, employee hardship, and ownership patterns in the sector, as well as any risks posed by diversion of some drinking to the home.”

Prior to the restrictions being lifted, the research team also conducted interviews with stakeholders – including representatives from major relevant Scottish and UK trade associations – to gauge the sector’s thoughts and feelings around implementing COVID-19 measures in licensed premises.

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While businesses expressed a willingness to work within government guidance to protect customers and staff, support consumer confidence and enable a return to trading, the interviews – conducted in May and June – also identified commercial challenges of doing so, included financial implications and a risk of compromising the customer experience.

Interviewees felt that there were factors that would help moderate transmission risks, like a prohibition on selling to drunk customers, industry expertise in managing customer behaviour, including drunkenness, new norms such as allowing table service only and public anxiety around Covid-19 generally leading to more responsible behaviours.

The researchers say they acknowledged that staff would need to be trained and skilled in implementing new measures – but also felt that some customers may not appreciate, or respond to, intervention.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Understanding the challenges and risks of operating premises where people come together during a pandemic has been an ongoing learning experience.  We know much more about this now than we did at the beginning of the pandemic, and this has informed the decisions we have taken to strengthen our response, as can be seen in the Strategic Framework. 

“As the virus continues to suppress as result of the current lockdown and as increasing numbers of people receive the first dose of the vaccine, we will look ahead at how we can reopen hospitality in a safe and sustainable manner when the time is right.

“In the meantime, it is important to continue following the guidance to help keep us all safe. We’re providing more than £3 billion in support for businesses affected by restrictions including grants for hospitality premises, wholesalers and independent brewers. We note the study published by the University of Stirling and will consider its findings.”