New study questions whether pubs can effectively and consistently prevent COVID-19 transmission risks

A new first-of-its-kind study has questioned whether pub operators can effectively and consistently prevent COVID-19 transmission – after researchers observed risks arising in licensed premises last summer.

16 February 2021

A new study, led by Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, SPECTRUM Deputy Director, and researchers at the University of Stirling, has examined the management of COVID-19 transmission risks in bars re-opening after Scotland’s first COVID-19 lockdown, including business practices, and consumer and staff behaviour.

Variable practices and incidents increasing risk of transmission

As well as interviews, the researchers conducted observations in July and August 2020 in a wide range of licensed premises which re-opened after a nationwide lockdown, and were operating under detailed guidance from government intended to reduce transmission risks. 

While observed venues had made physical and operational modifications on re-opening, researchers found that practices were variable and a number of incidents of greater concern were observed – these included close physical interaction between customers and with staff, which frequently involved alcohol intoxication and were rarely effectively stopped by staff.

Providing urgent evidence

The new study – published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs – is the first in the world to examine the operation of COVID-19 measures in licensed premises and its findings will inform governments, public health experts, and policymakers in the UK and other countries as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions.

The study team interviewed business owners and representatives prior to re-opening to understand the challenges being faced. When pubs reopened, following the initial UK lockdown, the team visited premises to observe how government measures designed to reduce transmission risks in hospitality settings were working in practice, including any incidents likely to increase those risks.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, SPECTRUM Deputy Director and study lead, said:

Our study makes a unique contribution by providing the first evidence, including direct observation data, of how premises operated in practice when allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, our findings suggest grounds for uncertainty about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm, and alcohol is routinely consumed.

Despite the efforts of licensed premises, and detailed guidance from Government, potentially significant risks of COVID-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars – especially when customers were intoxicated. Blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sales bans are more likely to be deemed necessary to control virus spread, if such risks cannot be acceptably, quickly and cost-effectively reduced through support and/or sanctions for premises operators. Such blanket actions may also have benefits in terms of protecting staff from occupational exposure and reducing pressure on emergency services from alcohol-related injuries or disorder. However, attention also needs to be paid to the impact of closures on businesses, economic activity, employee hardship, and ownership.