Stirling study a slight on trade

Hospitality business need to be nurtured, not subjected to further restrictions from academics, writes licensing lawyer Janet Hood

Licensing lawyer Janet Hood

AT a time when the on-sales licensed trade has been closed for two months; at a time when the trade fears that there will be no chance of opening or operating at anything like pre-COVID-19 levels possibly for years; at a time when we fear that upwards of a third of our on-sales businesses will be lost; at a time when Scotland’s on-trade has received far less assistance from the Scottish Government than their colleagues in England and Wales – despite having been granted the same funding per business as the UK Government, the Scottish Government has decided to spend £500,000 on a small number of research projects, including one on the reopening of licensed premises.

The University of Stirling “is seeking to understand how the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on licensed premises can be effectively managed to protect emergency services”.  The study is to consider “the way consumers and venues might respond to any easing of restrictions – in terms of alcohol consumption, intoxication, violence, sales and promotions”.

As we are all aware, over the last several years there has been a massive reduction in violence and other problems linked to hospitality in the on-trade. Premises operators comply with the law preventing them selling alcohol to drunk persons and most manage their premises in such a way as to prevent harm. This can be evidenced by the tiny numbers of premises licence reviews which have occurred in Scotland over the last five years.

This law will be in place post lockdown. However Professor Fitzgerald, who terms herself an expert in alcohol policy, states: “Governments [actually Scottish Government singular] and the public are very interested in how licensed premises may begin to reopen – but there are risks involved.”

The trade too has been considering the risks of re-opening post lockdown – for their customers, their staff, their communities and their profit margins.

What the trade does not need is further restrictions based on nonsensical speculation or modelling as it is otherwise termed.

Professor Fitzgerald goes on to say: “Whenever restrictions ease, businesses may seek to recoup losses and customers may choose to celebrate by drinking more than usual. The actions of businesses and consumers could have implications for how intoxicated people get and have a knock-on impact on our emergency services. It is really important, therefore, to understand the options available for easing restrictions. We will consult with a wide range of businesses, staff, policymakers and experts.”

Who will these people be, one wonders, and what is their expertise?

“One option could be to ease restrictions partially, or in a staggered way, potentially with measures remaining in place around sales, opening hours or venue capacities to minimise harm and impact on the emergency services,” adds Fitzgerald.

So far in the press we have seen suggestions from the temperance league such as “three pints maximum”.

It is well known that the on-trade has been badly affected by the now ingrained habit of pre-loading – not only do premises operators have to deal with smaller takings but they have to deal effectively with pre-loaders turning up drunk to ensure they do not enter and disrupt their businesses, and, ironically, try to make  sure these people get home or get to a safe place. The burden of responsibility is huge and is met by the on-trade.

It is highly unlikely our wonderful on-trade will be operating at  pre-lockdown or full capacity for a long time – whether or not they can open and operate profitably, whether they will be able to pay staff/rent/and other ongoing costs on reduced numbers of customers should social distancing still be required, how to manage social distancing, how to tempt customers back into premises and overcome the fear factor.

The press release demonstrates that the University of Stirling and Scottish Government have little or no respect for the people of Scotland, our visitors, nor our hospitality industry – an industry  which brings society together, helps prevent loneliness by providing premises in which we celebrate weddings, births and the passing of our loved ones, where we meet friends and strangers, where we have fun, where we are looked after and cared for by highly skilled operators and their staff.

There are some 8000 on-sales premises, which contribute 7% of GDP, employ directly some 250,000 people, and bring in £11 billion pounds per annum to Scotland. Those business encourage tourism and help drive inward business investment to Scotland.

We must not put up further barriers to the trade. The Scottish Government should instead be concentrating on persuading the UK Governnemt to cut VAT to 5% or below, should be cutting business rates for the on-trade, should be cutting red tape – not adding to the burden.

We must nurture our precious hospitality businesses which are loved by tourists and locals alike lest they be lost forever.