Licensed trade is a soft target

In the COVID-19 war outlets selling alcohol are seen as expendable

Available evidence suggests licensed premises are a low transmission risk

By Jack Cummins

THE pandemic has taken a wrecking ball to the hospitality sector, now staring into an abyss; and there’s a question many are asking: “Is the licensed trade being offered up as a sacrificial lamb in pursuit of an anti-alcohol strategy?”

If there was clear evidence that the suppression of coronavirus absolutely mandated severe restrictions, the question could scarcely arise.

But, in fact, the trade is being hung out to dry for one reason.

The virus thrives on social interaction and outlets selling alcohol are simply expendable: the political imperative is to protect other environments which have a greater ‘value’ – even though they pose far greater transmission risks.

That, in my view, is the stark reality.

When students returned to universities a couple of months ago – many travelling from abroad – the infection rate soared.

Plainly, it would have taken too much political fortitude to shut down higher education.

But the licensed trade is a soft target, even though all available evidence suggest that pubs, bars and restaurants present a transmission risk at the very bottom end of the scale.

On any reasonable cost/benefit analysis, wiping out a whole sector of the economy where operators have gone the extra mile to keep customers safe makes no sense at all.

Now, the attention of anti-alcohol campaigners is being re-directed to its primary target: the off-trade.

Calling for restrictions on the location of alcohol displays in the run up to the 2005 Act, lobbyists insisted that alcohol was “no ordinary commodity”. Shoppers looking to buy a pizza might be inclined to make an impulse buy of closely-positioned beer; or, less probably, a customer browsing lingerie displays might make a reckless wine purchase.

The “no ordinary commodity” approach makes a comeback in a new manifesto published by SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems) ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections – with some pretty startling proposals.

And, inevitably, the pandemic is being deployed as a lever.

According to the organisation’s website: “The pandemic has accelerated the long-standing trend towards home drinking, which involves additional potential risks.

“So far, research indicates that the heavier drinkers have increased their consumption.”

But it’s far too early to draw any conclusions as to the effect of the pandemic on alcohol consumption.

In fact, according to an article published on the SHAAP website on August 31, the impact of the pandemic on alcohol consumption and harm is “complex”; it’s likely that overall consumption has dropped; and a possible substantial rise in the consumption of at-risk drinkers “will be an important research topic in months and years to come”.

So, the jury is out.

Nevertheless, SHAAP’s latest manifesto calls for: a total ban on alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotion; the removal of alcohol from supermarket shelves; the establishment of alcohol-only outlets; and an overhaul of the alcohol duty structure.

There’s even a call for a government monopoly on alcohol sales based on the Swedish model.

Previous wish lists have included an end to alcohol sponsorship in sport and dedicated alcohol checkouts in supermarkets – so it’s clear that the organisation’s crusade has moved up a gear.

In my view, placing restrictions on where alcohol might be sold will inconvenience those who consume alcohol responsibly and do absolutely nothing to suppress purchasing among those problem drinkers who will seek out their favourite products wherever they’re stocked.

To be fair to SHAAP, the manifesto also makes a welcome plea for increased investment in alcohol treatment and support services.

Even more energy in that direction would be welcome, rather than the deployment of the pandemic as a reason to ramp up the war against alcohol.

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.