“Potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission” were found in pubs and bars across Scotland last summer when premises re-opened after lockdown.
The new study conducted by the University of Stirling is the first in the world to examine the measures tackling coronavirus in licensed premises.

The study was conducted between May and August, 2020 and observed a wide range of licensed premises in Scotland, United Kingdom (UK) which re-opened after a nationwide lockdown, and were operating under detailed guidance from the government intended to reduce transmission risks. 

The study was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. It indicates reasons for concern about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where alcohol is routinely consumed and where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, director of the university’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, led the research which was funded by the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.

A range of incidents with potential to increase the coronavirus transmission risk were observed in all but three venues in the research carried out between May and August last year, as bars began to reopen to the public.

Key observations

The UK entered national lockdown in March 2020. In Scotland, licensed premises were permitted to reopen indoor spaces on July 15, 2020 with strict safety rules in place to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

These restrictions included:

  • Premises operating with a one-metre physical distancing limit had to install appropriate signage and all customers had to be seated;
  • Staff had to wear face coverings.
  • Improved ventilation and noise reduction measures had to be introduced; and
  • Since August, 2020 it was made a legal requirement for customer details to be collected for contact tracing, and guidance was strengthened around queuing, standing and table service.  

The study included interviews of business owners and representatives prior to re-opening of licensed premises to understand the challenges of re-opening amidst the pandemic. After re-opening, the researchers visited 29 premises posing as customers to observe and assess if and how the respective premises followed the government guidelines.

The researchers observed incidents with potential to increase COVID-19 transmission risk in 26 venues.

High risk incidents due to the repeated or continuous nature of the potential risk, the large number of customers involved, or the involvement of staff were observed in 11 of the venues.

These incidents included:

  • Various combinations of singing, shouting or playing music; in all but one of the venues customers were singing loudly or shouting. There was only one effective staff intervention to suppress customer noise.
  • Mixing between groups;
  • Standing and 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.  

Other than the above high risk incidents the researchers made the following general observations:

  • Hand sanitizing stations within premises were infrequently used. Only two venues routinely administered sanitizer to customers’ hands on entry. 
  • Nine businesses did not request for customer details for contact tracing. This included one venue visited after this was made a legal requirement by the government.
  • In several venues staff wore no personal protective equipment (PPE), wore masks incorrectly or removed them to talk to other staff or customers.
  • Several venues had tables closer together than one meter without a partition.
  • Pinch points or gathering of people near areas such as entrances, corridors, doorways or bar counter were present in almost all venues.
  • More than half the venues disregarded “table service only” rule and provided bar service. In one venue a continuous queue formed in the one meter space between tables.
  • More than half the venues had no system to limit the number of customers entering toilets. Most venues had no physical distancing measures inside toilets. Some premises had overcrowding and poor ventilation inside toilets.

Implications in the context of COVID-19

The researchers identified that more serious incidents which could lead to virus transmission occurred due to several factors including, physical set up and operation of premises, a social atmosphere, customer behaviour, alcohol consumption and staff practices.

The more serious incidents mostly occurred in the evening, in premises rather located in towns or villages than in cities and in premises which disregarded “table service only” rules and offered bar service.

In most of the premises staff did not intervene to enforce restrictions. When they did it was in a light-hearted manner which was ineffective. No enforcement by environmental health or police officers was observed.

Currently, the Scottish Government guidance on limiting virus transmission in licensed premises does not detail how bar or security staff can intervene effectively and safely in breaches of the guidelines.

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,” said Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, lead author of the study and Director of the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, as per University of Stirling News.

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 [alcohol use] to the home.” 

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, Director, University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health

This study makes a unique contribution by providing first evidence including direct observation data, of how premises operated in practice when allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings raise concerns about whether the new rules work in practical settings.

The findings inform governments, public health experts, and policymakers in the UK and other countries as they consider the costs and benefits of lifting restrictions and re-opening the hospitality sector.


University of Stirling: “New study questions whether pubs can effectively and consistently prevent COVID-19 transmission risks

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