Audrey Ferrie: An almighty hangover for the licensed trade

Audrey Ferrie

The 16-day lockdown across the central belt has ushered in an almighty hangover for drinkers, diners and licensed trade operators alike, writes Audrey Ferrie.

Pub and restaurant owners in large swathes of Scotland have been forced to call last orders again, to wipe down the bar counter and to put the champagne on ice, as the Scottish Government ushered in new measures to counter an increase in Covid-19 cases.

And confusion reigns as to what constitutes a café (allowed to stay open) or a restaurant (forced to close) which requires the strongest of coffees to help clear the mind.

No one doubts the sentiment behind the moves, but equally there is widespread sympathy and support for a beleaguered hospitality industry, which in the vast majority of cases stepped up to and over the mark to ensure their premises were operating safely and that trace and protect systems gathered the data required by the Government.

Certainly, in the early days of post-lockdown a minority of licensed premises were paying lip service to collecting contact details of guests, but now the QR code is queen and with a swift scan on a mobile device, visitors’ information is quickly and securely stored.

But back to cafes – if you can find one open. Under the new guidance it was initially said that cafes in the lockdown regions were allowed to stay open until 6pm providing there was no alcohol served. Operators who thought their business fitted the criteria stayed open – only for some to be visited by local authority officials and told they must close.

One such example was Wee Paree in Glasgow’s West End, which initially stayed open with a new menu and alcohol sales off-limits, only for the owners to be left “scratching their heads” over the new guidance and closing the next day on learning it did not meet the Scottish Government definition of a café.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tried to explain away that there was an anomaly around cafes which did have an alcohol licence though serving alcohol was incidental to their main business, and it was an attempt to let those businesses – often in rural areas and the only facility in town – to stay open. However, this cut little ice with disappointed restaurateurs – much like the piles of ice dumped in protest outside the Scottish Parliament last week by disappointed bar operators and staff.

Regardless of where you stand – or sit as it’s table service only – on the need for licensed premises to close, the constant changing of the rules is surely damaging to public confidence in eating out and drinking, and this may have a longer lasting impact on the hospitality sector when it eventually returns to some sort of normality.

The finger has been pointed at hospitality as being a major factor leading to an increase in Covid-19 cases, but on the flip side of the menu there is a feeling that the sector is being unfairly targeted. This is particularly so for food-led businesses who may have very low alcohol sales but just because they are licensed have had to close or sell alcohol outside only.

Before the Central Belt 16-day-dry-spell, licensed premises were required to close at 10pm but it’s questionable whether this had the desired effect of preventing excessive inebriation and therefore reducing the risk of drinkers contracting coronavirus.

Fortunately, we have been spared the scenes in Scotland, of hundreds of 20-somethings cramming into Underground carriages after pouring out of pubs which have shut in 10pm unison. But let’s not kid ourselves that younger Scottish drinkers then headed home to pull on their PJs, when it’s more probable they had already sourced an accommodating house party – a higher risk compared to staying longer in the controlled pub environment.

Not surprisingly, the licensed trade are hitting back and a number of potential judicial reviews are on the horizon in England based on the premise that the more restrictive measures are not founded on any “tangible scientific evidence” that closing down the hospitality sector lessens transmission of coronavirus.

Greater Manchester’s night-time economy advisor, Sacha Lord, is leading one of the challenges and he has called for Westminster to produce the science behind the “draconian and dramatic” rules, a sentiment which will be shared by many in Scotland’s hospitality industry.

Audrey Ferrie is a legal director at Pinsent Masons