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Shutting pubs could lead to surge in house parties, hospitality leaders warn

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

Shutting pubs and restaurants at 10pm could lead to a “surge” in house parties “which are the real hot beds of infection”, hospitality leaders have said.

The UK Government has laid out plans for night-time venues to close at 10pm from Thursday in a bid to stem rising coronavirus cases, with some scientists welcoming the move.

On Tuesday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the shift would “make a difference”, adding: “There is evidence that the longer venues stay open, the greater degree of social mixing that takes place.”

Asked if a group of six people could leave a pub at 10pm and carry on drinking at a house, Mr Gove suggested they could as this was within the rules.

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night-Time Industries Association, said the 10pm closures were a “devastating” blow, adding: “This curfew will lead to the demise of many of our most beloved cultural and entertainment venues.

“Businesses in the night-time economy are both shocked and disappointed by the Government’s continued targeting of restrictions on late-night venues and bars, partially open at a fraction of their capacity, when they have admitted that the majority of transmission takes place in households.

“As a result of this measure, we foresee a surge of unregulated events and house parties which are the real hot beds of infection, attended by frustrated young people denied access to safe and legitimate night-time hospitality venues.”

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pubs Association, said curfew plans are “particularly heart-breaking” for pubs in areas where infection rates are under control.

“Make no mistake, a 10pm curfew will devastate our sector during an already challenging environment for pubs,” she said.

“Pubs were struggling to break even before today and these latest restrictions will push some to breaking point.

“Removing a key trading hour on top of fragile consumer confidence and the reduced capacity pubs already face will put thousands more pubs and jobs at risk.”

The announcement comes as job losses continue to mount in the hospitality sector, which was particularly hard hit by initial lockdown restrictions.

Earlier on Tuesday, Premier Inn owner Whitbread said it plans to cut 6,000 roles after a slump in demand, while pub giant Wetherspoons announced it will axe up to 450 positions at its airport sites.

David McDowall, chief operating officer of BrewDog, tweeted to say that the new rules are “infuriating and totally avoidable”.

He said: “Thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have been placed at risk, as a result of the government’s inability to establish a competent testing network or functioning contact tracing programme.”

Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, said limiting interactions was a good thing, but added: “I am less convinced that the 10pm curfew will be effective as it runs the risk of compressing activity and having people leave at a single time in larger numbers.”

He said Mr Gove’s suggestion that people could extend their night at friends’ houses showed how “the messaging surrounding this sort of restriction is confused and the rationale for implementing it has not been made clear”.

Dr Griffin said: “The concern is that an unfavourable public response to such measures will erode compliance on the fundamental issues of maintaining space and ventilation, wearing face coverings indoors and in crowded areas, and maintaining good hand hygiene.

“The UK population must be brought together to act in unison if we are to avoid an incredibly difficult and disruptive winter as Sars-CoV2 (coronavirus) cases rise again.”

Dr Jennifer Cole, biological anthropologist at the Royal Holloway University, said: “There has been a lot of concern that closing bars at 10pm rather than closing them at all will seem to make little difference, but people need to remember that the virus doesn’t spread in a vacuum – the biggest influence on its spread is people’s behaviour.”

She added: “We know that one of the biggest influences in people’s risk-taking behaviour is alcohol. The more drunk you are, the less inhibited and less risk-averse you are.

“Closing the bars and restaurants at 10pm simply keeps people more sober.

“It gives them plenty of time for a meal, or a quick drink with friends after work, but means they are likely to be sober enough to remember to put on a face-covering on the train or bus home, and to be careful around elderly relatives when they get home.

“It gives restaurant and bar staff time to give the venue a thorough clean when the last customers have left, without having to work unreasonably late.

“This means that a lot of the risk is reduced.”

She said data suggested so far that bars and restaurants do not appear to be a significant factor in the spread of Covid-19.

“The measure is not managing people’s behaviour within these venues so much as managing their behaviour when outside, which will be affected by how drunk or sober they are.

“In essence, the Government is saying: ‘Stay sober, stay sensible and the venues can stay open’ – it’s a carrot to encourage responsible behaviour.”

Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said: “This seems like a soft restriction, but it is preferable to total local or national lockdowns; and it could have a useful impact – if everyone tries to stick to it – to hopefully reduce the R number.”

UK Hospitality pointed to Public Health England (PHE) data for the week ending September 13, which showed there were 34 acute respiratory infection “incidents” linked to food outlet/restaurant settings, where 25 had at least one person testing positive for Covid-19.

This compares to 313 incidents in care homes, 193 in schools and colleges and 110 in workplaces.