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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s 10pm curfew criticised by scientists, industry leaders and politicians

Scientists warn measure will likely have ‘little to no impact’ as hospitality sector braces for further pain

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 23 September 2020 11:03 BST
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Boris Johnson lists new coronavirus restrictions

Scientists, industry leaders and Scotland’s first minister have criticised Boris Johnson’s national 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants as likely ineffective, dealing “a potentially fatal blow” to businesses, and paving the way for a surge in raves and house parties.

Warning the country had reached a “perilous turning point” in its battle with coronavirus, the prime minister brought new nationwide curbs, similar to those seen in local lockdowns, before the Commons on Tuesday.

Among the English restrictions, which Mr Johnson warned “will remain in place for perhaps six months”, were a reduction in wedding attendees to 15, indoor sport participants to six, and an enforceable order for all pubs, bars and restaurants to shut no later than 10pm.

With the prime minister appearing keen to assuage rising Tory discontent over what some described as his “authoritarian” governance throughout the crisis, the self-identified libertarian insisted the curfew struck a balance between protecting businesses and public health.

But the Food and Drink Federation warned “many pubs and coffee shops will not be able to trade profitably under these new rules and will have to close again", thus dealing “a potentially fatal blow" to hospitality manufacturers. 

While 175 publicans wrote to Downing Street to oppose the measures, leading trade association UKHospitality branded the curfew “another crushing blow” for a sector “already on its knees”, with chief executive Kate Nicholls pointing to government data showing just five per cent of infections outwith home settings are related to hospitality.

Calling the curfew a “punch in the stomach”, Damien Devine of the Old Red Lion in London’s Angel, London, told The Telegraph that last Saturday some 40 per cent of his daily take came after 10pm. 

Explaining the rationale behind the measures, the prime minister said: “The evidence shows that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night, when more alcohol has been consumed.”

But in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon also introduced a curfew, the first minister said Mr Johnson’s 10pm order would not “on its own be sufficient to bring the R number down”.

Announcing plans for an additional ban on households mixing indoors, Ms Sturgeon added: “A high proportion of new cases come from social interactions inside our homes."

Some scientists concurred that the advancement of last orders could push drinkers into less regulated home settings - which Tory minister Michael Gove endorsed on the BBC’s Today programme so long as the rule of six is maintained.

“While some people might comply with this latest restriction it is easy to imagine how others will simply adapt or circumvent it,” Ian Hamilton, associate professor of addiction at the University of York told The Independent.

"Some people will simply go out earlier while others will move on from the pub at 10pm and go to an indoor setting such as a friends house or party. So if the government's aim is to reduce the rising rate of Covid infections it seems illogical to force people out of pubs which are controlled environments into uncontrolled settings.”

Asked whether the curfew would likely see any reduction in binge drinking and levels of drunkenness within pubs which could hamper social distancing efforts, Prof Hamilton cited Royal College research suggesting high-risk drinking doubled during England’s lockdown, adding: “I can’t see how it would have any impact as all it does is shift where people drink rather than how much.”

While some questioned whether the curfew had been found to be successful where imposed in local lockdowns, others warned an earlier closing time “runs the risk of compressing activity and having people leave at a single time in larger numbers”.

“Again, it seems that the messaging surrounding this sort of restriction is confused and the rationale for implementing it has not been made clear," said Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the University of Leeds’ medicine school, citing Mr Gove’s comments about home drinking. 

Boris Johnson says UK has higher death rates than Germany because we love freedom
“The concern is that an unfavourable public response to such measures will erode compliance on the fundamental issues of maintaining space and ventilation, wearing face coverings indoors and in crowded areas, and maintaining good hand hygiene.”

And with the curfew dealing a hammer blow to short-term hopes for clubs to reopen in a socially distanced way, industry figures warned many iconic venues would not survive, while house parties and illegal raves could see an immediate and long-lasting resurgence.

"As a result of this measure, we foresee a surge of unregulated events and house parties which are the real hot beds of infection, attended by frustrated young people denied access to safe and legitimate night-time hospitality venues," said Night-Time Industries Association chief executive, Michael Kill.

“This curfew will lead to the demise of many of our most beloved cultural and entertainment venues,” he added.

“If the government wants a night time economy post-Covid they need to provide us with urgent financial support or iconic cultural destinations like Ministry of Sound will close forever," said the London venue’s chair, Lohan Presencer. 

“We have had zero income since March. Without support raving will return to dangerous, unlicensed venues with huge public order implications and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost.”

Despite culture secretary Oliver Dowden later clarifying that theatres, cinemas and concert halls would be exempt, by Tuesday evening it was still not clear whether grassroots live music venues would be subject to the curfew - leaving many in the industry panicked.

Alongside calls from Labour for an extension to the furlough scheme, the Federation of Small Businesses, which represents more than 5.8m small businesses in the UK, also called for greater fiscal help for business.

The prime minister hinted that chancellor Rishi Sunak “will be applying his imagination and creativity” to providing financial support for the affected sectors.

And despite warnings revellers may be pushed underground, some scientists called for a complete closure of pubs and restaurants and for them to be given financial support instead.

“The 10pm curfew will likely have little or no impact," said Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health, at the University of Southampton. "A far better approach would be to shut all pubs and restaurants, and properly compensate businesses and employees for the loss of income. 

“This would ensure that public health is prioritised, and business and staff are in a stronger economic position when they are allowed to resume.”

And Dr David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter suggested instead altering the “rule of six”.

“Closing down restaurants and pubs earlier will do little to stave the spread for as long as multiple different households can interchangeably meet up,” he said. "The rule of six requires strengthening (or ideally replacing) with a mandate that only a limited and nominated number of individuals can get together at all, and that movement between these groups should only have with a quarantine period in between.

But Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said: “This seems like a soft restriction, but it is preferable to total local or national lockdowns; and it could have a useful impact - if everyone tries to stick to it - to hopefully reduce the R number.”

And Dr Jennifer Cole suggested the measure was meant rather as an incentive for the public to adhere more closely to the rules.

“The measure is not managing people's behaviour within these venues so much as managing their behaviour when outside, which will be affected by how drunk or sober they are,” said Dr Cole, a biological anthropologist at the Royal Holloway University.  

“In essence, the government is saying: ‘Stay sober, stay sensible and the venues can stay open’ - it's a carrot to encourage responsible behaviour.”

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