Scotland’s new pub restrictions may lead to a rise in drinking

Consumption not contagion is a greater threat. Politicians run the risk of making things worse, not better, by implementing unscientific policies 

Ian Hamilton
Thursday 08 October 2020 10:53 BST
More Covid restrictions are 'possible' in Scotland, says Nicola Sturgeon

Boris Johnson has a habit of following the lead given by Nicola Sturgeon, her latest announcement to close pubs and restaurants for two weeks from Friday in Scotland could soon make its way south to England. Politicians on both sides of the border seem to have it in for pubs and bars, the restrictions applied to this sector make their economic viability very fragile. This is all done with the goal of disrupting the transmission of Covid-19.

Keir Stammer, leader of the opposition, has demanded Boris Johnson produce evidence for his recent policy that introduced a 10pm curfew for the sector. Boris is unlikely to provide evidence as there likely is none. Whether it’s the curfew or complete closure, the decisions are based on the notion that the more people who drink the greater the risk as they forget or abandon social distancing.  

While this has a certain logic to it, the unintended consequence we’ve all witnessed are groups of drinkers moving from the controlled environments of hospitality to free for all street parties or indoor residential versions. But a curfew is mere tinkering, in comparison to closing pubs and bars completely.

There could be some benefit – learning from the experience of South Africa, which saw a reduction in alcohol-related violence and drunk driving incidents, both of which reduced the strain on emergency departments and hospitals. But there is still no evidence that a total shutdown of these venues does anything to suppress the transmission of Covid-19.

The Scottish government published an evidence paper, which provides data and outlines their thinking based on it. But it’s far from convincing, in asserting a link between the hospitality sector and increasing transmission of coronavirus. Words such as “likely” are used when reaching the conclusion that pubs and bars are vectors of the virus. The argument they make could be just as easily applied to supermarkets as it does to pubs and bars.

The relationship between evidence and policy is fracturing, the marriage looks to be divorced. Despite political rhetoric about being wedded to the science, politicians are returning to the outdated habit of implementing policies based on hunches. Apart from being unscientific, it increases the risk of making things worse rather than better. The potential for harm isn’t restricted to contracting coronavirus. If, as most surveys suggest, some people are drinking at risky levels in recent months then it’s consumption not contagion that is the greater threat.

Contrary to intuition, closing pubs and bars is unlikely to reduce alcohol consumption. If anything, it will increase the quantity of alcohol used. There is an element of control when drinking in these venues as drinks are measured and people drink at a pace of those around them.

In contrast, evidence points to people pouring larger measures when drinking at home and they obviously don’t need to worry about driving home. Creating the potential for drinking more and for longer. All of which is aided by the increased value of drinking at home as it is considerably cheaper than drinking out.

Policies are more likely to succeed and be complied with when people understand the rationale and they experience the minimum negative consequences of its impact. The move to shut bars and pubs even for a short period fails on both counts, drinkers and those reliant on them for their livelihoods won’t be convinced of the rationale for this move, but both groups will experience the maximum pain, economically and psychologically. There are no winners when this type of policy disruption is inflicted with no or little gain.

Politicians are beginning to ignore the science, or in this case failing to be honest about the lack of evidence, then we are facing from a dual-threat, first the increasing transmission of the virus and secondly an ineffective hunch-based policy response.

Most people are willing to make sacrifices and comply with restrictions on their lives but there is a limit to what most will agree to and endure. This latest decision propels us towards using up that collective good will, not only dangerous but completely unnecessary. Added to which this could be the final push that sees the remaining bars and pubs out of business and all those they employ. Not so much a circuit breaker but a sector breaker.

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