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Covid-19 Study Highlights Risks for Reopening Pubs


The first study into Covid-19 transmission in UK licensed premises has revealed a large minority of venues failed to adhere to government guidance for patrons, with pubs and bars labelled a hotbed for Covid-19 transmission.

In a world first, the survey examined what was actually happening in pubs and bars last summer, highlighting the difficulties the licensed trade faces when attempting to comply with social distancing.

Difficult to control customers

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald’s paper detailed serious issues arising from pinch points, queues and access to toilets. It was also observed that, as patrons became more intoxicated, it became more difficult to control poor behaviours with staff unable or unwilling to do so.

Although the majority of UK pubs and bars did their best to adopt formal guidance when reopening under tight restrictions, many of the premises under direct observation were described as being unable to operate in a safe manner, with potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisting in a substantial minority of observed premises.

Whilst the study is sympathetic to the licensed trade, it is a further blow to an industry already reeling from closures and loss of revenue brought about by the pandemic.

Questionable data

The findings will be used to help inform government departments, public health experts and policy makers who are responsible for ensuring public safety and may result in even stricter controls or pushing back the reopening of pubs after this current lockdown.

With that in mind, it should be noted that the report was limited to pubs and bars trading mainly in Scotland and whilst it was designed to reflect diversity and rurality, the data used was not based solely on direct in-person attendance at premises. Online information and field worker local knowledge was also utilised. It seems that only 29 premises were actually visited for up to two hours during weekends in July and August 2020. Whilst the study includes large pub companies as well as independent licensed premises, this is a very small sample size considering there are nearly 3,000 licensed pubs and bars in Scotland alone.

Whilst any study into these issues is useful, it is difficult to reconcile the results with the intensive measures adopted across the UK by the largest pub owner operated businesses who have reacted responsibly to the pandemic. With brands and reputations to protect, the industry has reacted with a collaborative effort in meeting the risks posed.

Significant capital expenditure and resources have been incurred in attempting to meet the strict government guidance on social distancing, contact tracing and group numbers. Increased use of outdoor areas and a large reduction in tables indoors to allow for appropriate social distancing were introduced to prevent transmission. One way systems and barriers and screens were also implemented to protect staff and the public.

Controlling the behaviour of patrons in busy urban establishments is always a challenge, but such premises are likely to have greater staff numbers and door staff restricting access and dealing with any inappropriate behaviour.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) provides detailed guidance and links to assist the UK’s licensed pub trade and is lobbying the Government to allow for the full reopening of pubs and bars in April 2021. At present the planned lifting of restrictions on 12 April is limited to outdoor service only. The BBPA has advised that 29,000 pubs and bars across the UK will remain closed as they are unable to meet the outdoor service restrictions.

Whilst it is accepted that the measured reopening of pubs during a pandemic has to be carefully orchestrated, the industry believes that the restrictions put in place during the previous lockdown are sufficient if appropriately managed.

Risk mitigation

Whilst elements of the survey are questionable in terms of applicability to the industry as a whole, it does provide a timely reminder for pubs and bars reopening next month that appropriate measures must be put in place, monitored and enforced.

Well placed and lit signage on social distancing is vital, along with one-way traffic routes and special procedures adopted by customers at pinch points and where queuing is likely, such as in toilet areas.

All staff need to be trained and fully engaged with the policies to be adopted and these need to be monitored and strictly enforced.

Staff intervention with customers who are failing to properly follow the processes put in place at venues will be required. Selected staff will need to be trained in conflict management and be able to confidently de-escalate potentially volatile situations without recourse to police intervention. The safety of staff and other customers is paramount but appropriate training can prevent arguments developing into something more serious.

Where required, physical barriers to keep customers apart or allow for one-way pedestrian traffic routes need to be carefully planned to avoid barriers themselves becoming a hazard. Full risk assessments must be carried out and implemented.

Floor signs marking routes or social distancing need to be fit for purpose and have slip resistance. Note that different grades of floor sign with far greater adhesive qualities are available specifically for outdoor use.


As lockdown eases, pubs and bars must be able to demonstrate that they continue to act responsibly in the face of unprecedented challenges, especially if the Government is to allow full reopening in the near future.




Ivor Long

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