The National:

SCOTTISH Labour leader Richard Leonard has caused a stramash by arguing that Covid restrictions imposed on the hospitality sector by the Scottish Government have an air of puritanism about them – and even suggesting that people could be forgiven for thinking that Nicola Sturgeon had effectively imposed a version of 1920s US prohibition on their communities.

Like many, I was a bit bemused by this. Partly because, as a long term member of the SNP, I can testify that SNP gatherings are not known for a puritanical approach to alcohol. But mainly because it seemed a particularly tone deaf attack at a time when we are surrounded by emerging evidence of the impact of a new and more easily transmissible UK variant of Covid-19.

The latest data from Public Health England shows that English hospitals now have more Covid patients than at any previous point during the pandemic. In London, cases increased by 47% in one week. As a consequence, there are reports of significant problems with hospital capacity.

Scotland does not face such a serious situation at this point in time – but we are seeing a significant increase in transmission. There can be no doubt that the situation is very concerning. Why, then, would you choose to suggest that restrictions on hospitality are driven by puritanism rather than by the prevalence of the virus?

READ MORE: Richard Leonard under fire for 'totally unfounded' claims about Covid pub closures

I completely appreciate how awful the pandemic has been for the hospitality sector and understand the urgent need for financial support to save jobs and businesses. I can also understand why the restrictions feel unfair and why people working in the sector may feel they are being singled out. The situation is particularly worrying for the large numbers of people working in the sector who are in insecure employment.

But no government can ignore or change the risk factors associated with Covid transmission. They are what they are. Indoor settings, where groups of adults from different households are in the same room for a prolonged period, are risky. Add in the necessity to remove masks to eat and drink and the disinhibiting effect of alcohol and you have the perfect environment for the virus to spread. This is why hospitality settings have been subject to restrictions all over the world.

Of course businesses have done everything they can to minimise risk and comply with public health guidance. There is no suggestion that the hospitality sector is to blame for the spread of the virus. But the mitigating measures which made hospitality settings safe when community transmission was low are not sufficient when transmission is increasing. That is why restrictions are in place. There is no evidence that a wish to introduce prohibition lies behind the decisions that have been taken.

The National:

READ MORE: Number of Covid-19 patients in English hospitals surpasses peak of first wave

Presumably this line of attack relates to previous actions taken by the Scottish Government to reduce harmful alcohol consumption, such as minimum pricing of alcohol. But minimum pricing applies almost entirely to the retail sector, because that is where high-volume, low-cost alcohol was sold. There have been no restrictions brought in specifically to prevent the sale of alcohol in retail settings during the pandemic. Rather, the restrictions apply to settings where prolonged household mixing could occur because that is how the virus is transmitted, from household to household.

In any case, minimum pricing is not puritanical. It is an entirely legitimate public health intervention to reduce health inequalities. Harmful drinking takes a much higher toll on the poor than it does on the wealthy. That is something I would have expected a Labour politician to consider.

Data suggests that minimum pricing has had an impact, with alcohol sales reducing over the first year of full implementation. It is possible we may not see the same trend continuing in this year’s figures. Covid has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, and for some it has been unbearable. We might see that there has been an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. This could be among a number of very difficult issues we have to deal with as we move into recovery.

READ MORE: Drink-related deaths fall in Scotland as minimum unit pricing 'starts to save lives'

But we need to get to a place of recovery first. That means that we must continue to do everything possible to suppress the transmission of the virus as the vaccination programme is rolled out. For most of us that means hunkering down, staying at home as much as we can (while making sure we get outdoors for regular walks) and keeping our contacts with people from other households to a minimum.

Doing this will protect our health and social care staff, who have to meet the challenge of Covid head on, as well as other frontline workers. They need our support now, more than ever. And let’s also remember that there is cause for hope. We now have three effective vaccines, one of which is already being rolled out. There have also been advances in testing and treatment. A sustainable recovery is on the horizon – for the hospitality sector as well as for everyone else – but we need to get through the winter months first without allowing the virus to spiral out of control.