Tuesday 14 December 2021

Were 'public health' busybodies the real victims of COVID-19?

In February, we saw the first fruits of the £500,000 of taxpayers money given to Niamh Fitzgerald and her little temperance chums by the Scottish government. The grant was to investigate the impact of the pandemic and the associated restrictions on alcohol consumption and the night time economy. It was always pretty obvious that they would look favourably on anything that restricted people's ability to drink alcohol and the findings of their first study did not come as a surprise.

A team of Scottish researchers examined Covid-19 measures in licensed premises last summer and found some worrying "pinch points" which could see the infection spread.

They say blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sale bans could be more likely to be deemed necessary to control the spread.

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.

Fitzgerald et al. returned this week with another study - again based on interviews - which contains moments of inadvertent humour. In particular, it gives an insight into the day-to-day work of local 'public health professionals' who were the real victims of COVID-19 because they were hampered in their ability to interfere with pubs and clubs.

Some public health actors had to withdraw from their work on alcohol licensing to focus on pandemic-related work, halting partnership work with other licensing stakeholders.

How awful for them. Being required to work on an actual public health problem for the first time in their career must have come as a shock.

One public health actor raised concerns on this basis, suggesting that new licensing applications/proposed variations to existing licenses might not be given the same level of scrutiny from a public health perspective.

It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? Imagine if a pub could extend its beer garden without some purse-lipped busbybody from 'public health' raising spurious objections.

Second, several stakeholders expressed concern about relaxation of licensing regulations, which they feared might not fully reversed.

This is what keeps them up at night.

A national decision was taken in England to permit licensed premises forced to close during the lockdown to sell takeaway alcohol, resulting in ‘people wandering around the street with, you know, plastic pint pots, which is what they’re allowed to do now’.

Pray for them.

This was reportedly done without consultation and experienced as ‘pulling the rug out from under’ (undermining) local licensing stakeholders.

The horror. The horror.
We should remember that the context of this 'relaxation of licensing regulations' was the on and off closure of all pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs for over a year, curfews, the rule of six, stupid nonsense about Scotch eggs and a ban on the sale of alcohol indoors (in Scotland for a while). 

It was an extremely difficult time for people in the licensed trade and 'public health' troughers begrudged every attempt they made to stay in business.

As businesses reopened following the first UK lockdown, interviewees reported that multiple licences were granted to permit the sale of alcohol for consumption in areas outside premises.

They were banned from serving alcohol indoors! What else were they supposed to do?
Licensing team members explained that the volume of such applications meant they were unable to visit premises prior to applications being considered as they normally would do.

Did this cause any problems? The study doesn't mention any so perhaps these people are a waste of space.

Another raised concern about expansion in availability through outdoor drinking when premises re-opened because ‘especially just now...everybody’s needing to turn everything in to a beer garden just to keep the business going, you know, with social distancing etc.’.

So what??

The study also interviews people in the ambulance service, one of whom recalls lockdown fondly:

‘It’s so nice to go to work on a Friday night knowing that you don’t have to go into pubs and clubs... it’s made a huge difference.’

How lovely for them!

The authors of the study conclude with some concerns that people might continue drinking outside pubs when the pandemic ends - because that's been the real issue of the last two years, hasn't it? 

It may be difficult to reverse outdoor licences granted during the pandemic, even when physical distancing is no longer required...

Who cares? What's wrong with drinking outside?

A shift towards outdoor drinking renders alcohol consumption (and any related drunkenness) more visible, including to children and people in recovery from alcohol problems who may be passing by.

Think of the children!

However, they don't like people drinking at home either, and for the same reason.

Drinking (or drunkenness) at home is more visible to children than drinking by adults in bars/pubs where children are not permitted.

It's almost as if they don't approve of drinking at all, isn't it?

Overall, it seems likely that the closure of licensed premises led to net reductions in the burden of alcohol-related harm on emergency services, even with a shift to home drinking, but that this was relatively short-lived.

Strangely, the authors omit to mention the massive rise in alcohol-related deaths that took place in 2020 when all these restrictions were in place.

So maybe having pubs and clubs open, with or without beer gardens, isn't quite the public health problem we've been led to believe? 
Nevertheless, they conclude:

It is timely to consider whether economic prosperity in the NTE [night-time economy] must rely on alcohol and whether there is a third way or ‘sweet spot’ approach via policies which transform and build the NTE to prioritise other forms of entertainment, food, music or more family-friendly environments.

No, there isn't. Go away.

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