Researchers said that while venues had changed the way they operated before re-opening, incidents in a substantial minority of bars were observed including close physical interaction between customers and with staff and drunken singing, shouting and handshaking which employees were rarely able to stop.
“Despite the efforts of bar operators and guidance from government, potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in at least a substantial minority of observed bars, especially when customers were intoxicated,” said Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, director of the university’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, who led the study.
“Businesses expressed an intention to work within the guidance, but there were commercial and practical challenges to making this a reality.”
Pubs were permitted to reopen in Scotland on 15 July, four months after the UK entered a national lockdown.
Premises were required to implement strict safety rules, including a one-metre social distancing measure. All customers had to be seated, staff had to wear face coverings, and improved ventilation and noise reduction measures had to be introduced, while venues also had to collect customer details for contact tracing.
But there was still concern about transmission in pubs and Aberdeen was placed in a fresh lockdown in August after an outbreak emerged of cases linked to bars in the city.
“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, queues and other ‘pinch points’,” Prof Fitzgerald said.
“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 researchers were told that interventions made by staff were often ineffective.
A representative from one trade organisation said: “As the drink gets flowing, people will start getting stroppy and are not going to – well potentially it is there for them not to take too kindly to being told to keep their distance.”
Prof Fitzgerald said closures of pubs and bars “can eliminate these risks” but warned that this came at a cost, with “significant hardship for business owners and staff”.
“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,” she said.
”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.”
It is hoped the research, which was funded by the Scottish government’s Chief Scientist Office, will help to inform public health experts and policymakers worldwide as they consider the risks of lifting restrictions.
However Stephen Montgomery, from the Scottish Hospitality Group, called the paper an “out-of-date witch hunt”.
He said: “In reality we are talking about just a handful of premises. From those 29 targeted, criticism is levelled at in their own words a ‘substantial minority of observed bars.’
”You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out that basing the closure of a £10.5 billion industry on this sham of a report would be ludicrous.”