I have some sympathy with politicians trying to make evidence-based decisions in unprecedented times. The wheels of peer-reviewed science turn slowly. When it comes to specific policy measures, such as what to do with the hospitality industry during Covid-19, we are in uncharted territory.
Nevertheless, it does not inspire confidence when the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is passing around a dodgy dossier in private meetings with MPs. Whitty seems determined to find evidence that pubs are a significant source of transmission, so they can be closed down.
When the Scottish Government announced the closure of most of its pubs on Wednesday, it could only muster the claim that around 20 per cent of people with the virus had visited a hospitality venue in the past week. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer admitted that this did not prove that any of them had been infected in a pub, nor that they had infected anyone else in a pub. Correlation doesn’t equal causation and this was barely even a correlation. Without knowing how many non-infected people go to the pub each week, the statistic is meaningless.
More useful are the NHS Test and Trace figures showing where infected people have had ‘close, recent contact [with other people] and places they have visited’. The most common exposure, by far, is in the home. Only 5 per cent of individuals with the virus report having had close contact with other people in what Public Health England unhelpfully classifies ‘leisure/community’. This is an extremely broad category that lumps together ‘eating out, attending events and celebrations, exercising, worship, arts, entertainment or recreation, community activities and attending play groups or organised trips’.
Despite the wide range of activities listed, only one in twenty Covid-19 cases mention having been involved in any of them. The number of people who visited a pub specifically must be significantly lower than five per cent and the number of people who were infected in them lower still.
The 10pm ‘curfew’ is now widely acknowledged to be a mistake. Empirical evidence is again lacking, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it has led to crowds on public transport and an increase in house parties. It is easy to imagine a further surge in unregulated private gatherings if pubs are closed down altogether.
When the curfew began two weeks ago, the seven day average of new Covid-19 cases was running at around 6,000. It has since doubled. In Bolton, pubs have been closed since 8 September. When the shutdown began, the seven day average was running at 88 new cases per day. It now stands at 109. Pubs reopened nationwide on 4 July, but it was not until late August that the virus began to grow significantly. In Leicester, pubs remained closed until 3 August and yet the rate of infection continued falling in the city until September when, in common with rest of the country, there was a resurgence.
In short, there is vanishingly little evidence to support the idea that shutting down highly regulated hospitality venues breaks the cycle of transmission. It might even make things worse.
Instead of resorting to a socially damaging and economically disastrous shutdown of the hospitality industry, the government should revisit these measures, strengthen them based on lessons learnt, and ensure consistent enforcement.
Face masks and shields, designated areas and physical distancing of tables, limits on the number of patrons and party sizes, and proper procedures for cleanliness and service have all proven their effectiveness. Heated outdoor areas can extend the season of open-air entertainment, and continued contact tracing can further mitigate potential infection.
A survey conducted in August found that 85 per cent of pubgoers thought their local was complying with, or exceeding, government guidelines. Those that do not comply with the law should be shut down, but the rest of the pub industry, which is already hanging by a thread, should be given a break.