PUBS might not be able to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, warn scientists, after observing risks in licensed premises last summer.

Scottish researchers examined Covid-19 measures in licensed premises in the first study of its kind in the world and found alarming results.

They say blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sale bans could be more likely to be deemed necessary to control the spread if risks cannot be reduced through support or sanctions for pubs and other premises.

Their findings will inform governments, public health experts and policymakers in the UK and overseas as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions.

However, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) has expressed concern at the findings. It says the research, which sampled 29 licensed premises, cannot stand up to scrutiny based on its low sample.

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The project was conducted from May to August last year in a wide range of licensed premises which re-opened following the first nationwide lockdown, operating under government guidance intended to reduce transmission risk.

Researchers found that despite making physical and operational changes on re-opening, practices were variable and discovered a number of incidents of greater concern. Most of these incidents were observed in the evening, occurring in a town or village rather than a city and with customers often appearing to be regulars.

These incidents included close physical interaction between customers and with staff, which often involved alcohol intoxication and were rarely effectively stopped by staff.

Study lead author Professor Niamh Fitzgerald of Stirling University said: “When pubs re-opened last July our 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.

“Businesses expressed an intention to work within the guidance, but there were commercial and practical challenges to making this a reality.

“Upon re-opening, substantial efforts to change the layout of bars were observed and appeared to be working well in many premises, but problems were common including staff not wearing personal protective equipment, or with the management of toilets.

“We also observed several incidents of greater concern, including customers shouting, embracing or repeatedly interacting closely with several households and staff, which were rarely addressed by staff.”

The team concluded that potential significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in at least a minority of bars, especially when customers were intoxicated, despite workers’ efforts and government guidance.

She added: “Closures of premises can eliminate these risks, but also cause significant hardship for business owners and staff.”

The SLTA slammed the study, saying that it is at odds with more credible UK-wide surveys which have consistently found that Covid-19 transmission rates in licensed hospitality venues have been “extremely low”.

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One widely reported survey, by industry group UKHospitality, spanned 12,522 hospitality venues across the UK that employ a total of 358,000 people. It found that in the 14 weeks since July 4, 1728 staff members had been infected with Covid, equating to an employee infection rate of 0.48% across 20 million work shifts across the UK.

SLTA spokesman Paul Waterson said: “To present the results of a survey of just 29 premises when there are in the region of 11,500 premises in our sector the length and breadth of Scotland is ludicrous and is in no way representative.

“It has been estimated that the licensed hospitality sector in Scotland has spent £80 million on becoming Covid compliant.”

Fitzgerald concluded: “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.”