The government’s 10pm mandatory closing time for pubs, bars and restaurants in England has come under scrutiny, following videos posted on social media of crowds gathering outside venues in some cities after closing time.
Ministers have been defending the policy but the mayor of Greater Manchester has called for an “urgent review of the emerging evidence” of its impact.
Other measures include mandatory table service and the use of face masks whenever a customer is not at their table (for example, when they go to the toilet). Owners can also be fined up to £10,000 for failing to implement rules.
Indoor venues, including bars and restaurants, have long been considered particularly vulnerable to the spreading of the virus.
“Wherever you get people crowded together, for example concert halls, cruise ships, house parties, bars and pubs, you risk spreading a virus,” says Dr Julian Tang, a professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester.
If people are sitting near each other talking without face masks or coverings, it can maximise the amount of spit droplets that are transferred between people, he says.
His research also highlights the potential risk if the virus is projected into the air whilst breathing and talking, where it stays suspended and may then be inhaled by others.
“This is a risk in pubs and bars, where the ventilation may be poor and not able to replace this contaminated air rapidly with outdoor fresh air,” he says.
The World Health Organization has acknowledged that there is emerging evidence that coronavirus can be spread by tiny particles staying in the air and “more studies are urgently needed.”
Evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which reports to the government, has highlighted that venues serving alcohol pose a significant risk.
“Smaller gatherings such as bars and nightclubs are higher risk as you can be in closer contact with others,” a report from the 11 February warned.
Therefore, the new measures are aimed at further reducing the overall period of time that people spend in close contact with each other in pubs and restaurants.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this weekend, the University of Edinburgh’s Prof Mark Woolhouse, a member of the government’s infection modelling team, said “there isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this”.
However, he said this also applied to the nationwide lockdown which occurred from 23 March onwards.
“What we’ve seen from the evidence is that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed. This is one way we see of driving down the R [reproductive rate] without doing excessive economic damage,” he said.
A previous report from Sage on 20 August – referencing alcohol at football matches – said that “specific activities such as hugging and singing/cheering could also increase the risk of transmission, and may be enhanced by alcohol use”.
On Thursday, the first day of the 10pm closing time in England, a video quickly emerged from central London of pub-goers crowding around the entrance to a Tube station once the pubs had closed.
Ultimately, any kind of gathering – whether it is in a pub or Tube carriage – where people are tightly packed together and social distancing is not enforced risks spreading the virus.
But Liverpool and Newcastle’s transport authorities said they did not experience a surge in passengers around 10pm.
Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, has warned of a rush to off-licences following pub closing time which could lead to an increase in outside gatherings or house parties.
Wales also has 10pm closing for pubs and restaurants but, unlike England, off-licences and supermarkets must also stop selling alcohol at this time and it cannot be delivered either, including hotel room service.
At this point, we have some initial data but it does not tell the full story.
But this data requires two or more cases to be tracked down to the location via Public Health England’s Health Protection Teams.
This means these people must get tested, report accurately where they had been to the government’s Track and Trace programme, and for an investigation to conclude that these places had been the source of outbreaks.
This might, therefore, be easier to do with closely monitored or prioritised places like schools, hospitals and care homes.
New data from the Track and Trace system attempts to find out the places people visited in the week prior to showing coronavirus symptoms.
Of the 87,128 events people said they had attended in which there was some contact with others between 10 August and 24 September:
This data only highlights where people went prior to getting the virus but this may not be where they actually caught it.
Public Health England does say it is helpful in indicating “possible places where transmission is happening”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the largest group of contacts people met were members of their own household.
But once again, this doesn’t show who (and where) the virus is spreading from, just the people they have have come into contact with.
The ban on households mixing in indoor settings will be enforceable by law and subject to fines.
News – What’s the evidence for 10pm pub closing time?