Pubs and restaurants: do scientists think Covid closures and curfews work?


Pubs, bars and restaurants in Scotland will be banned from serving alcohol to customers indoors for more than two weeks, while pubs in northern England face the possibility of tighter restrictions. But what does the science say?

Are pubs and restaurants important in the spread of Covid-19?

Outbreaks often begin in crowded indoor settings, such as cruise ships, conferences, bars and restaurants, with transmission then occurring beyond that, for example, in households. That’s according to studies cited by Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.

Prof Linda Bauld, a public health expert at the University of Edinburgh, agreed, noting that contact tracing data from Aberdeen, where a local lockdown was imposed for three weeks in August, showed that the outbreak was triggered by a small number of infectious people entering hospitality venues.

“The idea with restricting access to pubs or restaurants, or closing them altogether, is that we can break the chain of transmission, reduce the number of super-spreading events, and then that should have a decent impact in terms of lowering new outbreaks and therefore onward transmission,” said Head.

Why focus on alcohol?

In general, alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce inhibitions and increase risk-taking behaviours. “There’s loads of experimental psychology studies looking at how people behave when they are drunk in an indoor space – that evidence exists even though it is not Covid-specific,” said Bauld.

While researchis under way into the impact on behaviour of reopening pubs, experts say there could well be an impact on infections.

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“It is difficult for people to do all the things they are supposed to do when they are [in those settings], and it is very difficult – despite the best efforts of staff – to really police that effectively,” said Bauld.

What about the 10pm curfew?

This seems more questionable, according to experts. “I remain baffled about that to this day, as to why shifting closing hours just one hour forward would have any tangible effect,” said Head. “I suppose the idea was that it would reduce the length of time people are in the pub.” Bauld added that it might be harder for staff to police rules as customers get more tired or drunk.

It seems there is little evidence base for the curfew, however. “I’ve seen no studies that say that is the time that you should cut [serving alcohol] off at,” said Bauld. “If you look at what the academics have been saying about the curfew, I haven’t really identified anybody in public health who thought it was a great idea.”

The policy could be counterproductive, with people potentially going to the pub earlier, congregating outside after closing time, or buying alcohol to consume in gatherings at home, Head said. “I think the actual impact from [the 10pm curfew] would have been at best inconsequential and at worst have had negative consequences.”

Should pubs, bars and restaurants be shut when cases are high?

“In my view pubs and restaurants should be shut in high-burden areas and the restaurants owners and staff fully compensated for loss of income,” said Head, noting emerging evidence that Covid transmission is not just down to large droplets from coughing or speaking, but that tiny airborne particles called aerosols could also play a role.

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“Although reducing alcohol being served, making sure people stay at their own tables, is useful, it doesn’t eliminate risk altogether and significant risks of transmission still remain,” he said.

There are also the super-spreaders, Bauld pointed out. “If you have got one of those people in that kind of venue it is a disaster,” she said.



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