IF marks were given for questionable research, dubious findings, and harmful headlines, then Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, and her team of taxpayer-funded researchers from Stirling University would score a perfect 10 for their misleading, misrepresentative, and scurrilous ramblings.

Managing Covid-19 Transmission Risks in Bars: An Interview and Observation Study has more holes in it than a Victorian lace doily. This £500,000 Scottish Government commissioned study was carried out on a small sample size of 29 licensed premises, by researchers posing as customers, between May and August of last year (although pubs and restaurants were only able to reopen indoors from July 15). With the laudable objective of looking at the particular challenges licensed premises have faced, since March 2020, of operating safely with Covid-19 restrictions, this research appears to discredit those efforts and bring shame to the whole industry.

The report was published the day after Valentine’s Day, Monday February 15, but was embargoed to garner maximum impact with the media until the following day. It contained no love within its damaging pages for distressed publicans and licensees. There was no empathy shown or mention given of the extreme pressures, sacrifices and hardships many have made and endured since the beginning of the pandemic, nor was there any reference made of the great strides, at a huge personal cost to the licensees, totalling more than £80 million, they have made in trying to make their sector covid-free and their worried staff and customers feel safe and secure.

Instead, coming at a time when this ailing industry is on its last orders, and fighting off closing time, the research team used their oxymoronic example “substantial minority” of pubs, the very few, not the majority, to clatter the trade and spin out their debatable findings. Publicly warning by stating the obvious: “Pubs may not be able to stop covid spread" and threatening the trade with “blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sale bans” if risks couldn’t be reduced.

It might have escaped Professor Fitzgerald’s notice, but there isn’t one sector or industry that can yet fully guarantee stopping the virus from spreading, including universities.

The response from the Scottish Licence Trade Association (SLTA) was as quick as it was damning, slamming the Stirling survey for not standing up to scrutiny due to its low sample, and at odds with more credible UK-wide surveys. The most recent was carried out by industry group UK Hospitality, spanning 12,522 hospitality venues employing 358,000 people. It found that in the 14 weeks since July 4, only 1,728 staff members had been infected with covid, equating to a low employee infection rate of 0.48%.

As SLTA spokesman Paul Waterson angrily pointed out: “To present the results of a survey of just 29 premises when there are in the region of 11,500 premises in our sector the length and breadth of Scotland is ludicrous and is in no way representative of this country’s hospitality businesses."

The Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG) was equally unequivocal in its condemnation of this shambolic report with its spokesman fuming: “It is an out-of-date witch-hunt, wholly unreflective of our industry based on a tiny number (0.17%) of Scotland’s bars and restaurants."

Professor Fitzgerald said: “We interviewed business owners and representatives prior to reopening to understand the challenges being faced”.

True, but as a matter of public health safety should they not have informed the few premises they regarded guilty of breaching covid conditions at the time instead of unfairly publicly hanging the whole trade out to dry months later?

It’s no wonder the industry is so angry with Stirling University when the results of their research are so misleading.

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