The industry deserves greater clarity on when it will be able to return to normality, writes Stephen McGowan
16th March 2021 was a day of high anticipation in the Scottish hospitality industry. From bars, hotels and restaurants to the nighttime economy, live music and events, it was hoped that the first minister would finally put down some clear markers for many of these businesses. For those that have been closed for almost a year now, it is essential that they can at least contemplate what the future might look like.
For many, the possibility that beer gardens can open on 26th April, and indoor drinking and dining can commence from 17th May, engenders heartfelt relief. Some of my clients were taking bookings even while the first minister was still on her feet.
Any step away from the current arduous restrictions is to be welcomed – but notions that there should be unfettered acceptance without critique are to be resisted. There is much to be concerned and alarmed about in the roadmap, as it stands.
The timetable is extremely complicated for hospitality, with a myriad of rules and changes. It cannot escape the critical eye of the objective observer that some of these rules appear arbitrary and without any established evidential base. The conflicting rules surrounding the use of indoor and outdoor facilities from 26 April is liable to lead to customer confusion and operational difficulties. Under the rules, I can drink outside a pub, go inside for a meal but not drink, and then by 8pm I have to come outside again if I wish to continue to enjoy the hospitality of the premises.
Why not 9pm instead of 8pm? The arbitrary nature of these curfews are, for many, difficult to fathom. Another example of this is the “two hour slot” notion, proposed to apply from 17th May. Customers may end up booking multiple slots at different venues, instigating a spike in interactions with other people as they move across those venues, and try to maximise consumption in an irresponsible fashion with one eye on the clock. No doubt there would also be havoc for premises that are let down by phantom reservations, especially where the viability of trading under these restrictions is still in question given reduced capacities.
The continued reluctance to allow normal alcohol consumption is also a source of frustration. As of 26th April, for example, wedding receptions and funeral wakes up to 50 people are allowed – but no alcohol. Yet, under the level three restrictions much of Scotland was under in 2020, alcohol was permitted.
Much of the aversion to alcohol is pejorative: opinions that people will not behave themselves or follow the rules when under the influence are presented as scientific facts. That pays no heed to the wider environment patrons would be in such as reduced capacities, Covid-secure measures and table service. More than that, it does a disservice to staff and management who are not trusted to manage their own premises. Wet-led pub operators, often at the spear-tip of restrictions, ask me where the coronavirus rules end and a wider antipathy to alcohol begins
The Rubik’s cube of social distancing rules remain unfathomable for many. As of 26th April we have four people from two households indoors; six people from three households outdoors; and six teenagers from six households outdoors. This moves to six people from three households indoors; eight people from three households outdoors; and eight teenagers from eight households outdoors.
The “teenagers” rule is designed to allow young people to see their friends – a concessionary wellbeing provision. Where is the same thought towards the mental health of adults, especially older people, who need to socialise? On top of this, there is no ambition to move past social distancing. The goal cannot be level zero. Where is the acknowledgement that we need, as a society, to leave social distancing behind?
17th May sees the opening of cinemas, arcades and bingo halls, but for reasons that remain unclear, casinos do not merit inclusion. My many nightclub and music venue clients are forlorn. They are not even recognised or acknowledged in the new roadmap. Where is the ambition to allow nightclubs, which have been closed for a full year, the platform to contemplate a future?
The desire to have the government simply acknowledge nightclubs in a roadmap is not just about a handful of businesses or even the secondary businesses and supply chain they support. It is a much wider part of the fabric of society – people want to laugh, dance, be merry and meet other people. The opening of nightclubs is a pinnacle – society has not fully moved past all of this until we can throw open the doors of our dance halls.
While our government has an unenviable, monumental task guiding us through this public health crisis, this should not be to the exclusion of the importance of hope, or that intrinsic life-element: joy. Or the need for certainty about the future. It is to our wonderful people in hospitality that we will turn to bring us that joy, much needed cheer and the restorative powers of convivial socialisation to boost the nation’s mental health. I hope the next update brings them the recognition they need and deserve.
Stephen McGowan is a partner and head of licensing (Scotland) at law firm TLT.