Scotland’s hospitality sector is to be ordered to follow tougher infection control measures within days, after coronavirus cases linked to the reopening of pubs in Aberdeen continued to spiral.
Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that the Scottish Government was looking at a “tighening up” of regulations nationwide, which could involve an attempt to limit pub crawls and making collection of customer details a legal requirement.
The move comes after all pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes in Aberdeen city were ordered to shut down for at least a week on Thursday, just three weeks after they were fully reopened, and a key advisor to the first minister warned there is increasing evidence pubs and bars are linked to "super-spreading events".
Ms Sturgeon has previously refused to rule out looking again at an exemption to the two metre distancing rule inside hospitality venues, which allows them to operate with a one metre rule.
On Thursday, the number of confirmed cases linked to the Aberdeen outbreak rose to 79, and a further 30 are under investigation as being potentially connected.
More than half of the 67 new cases across Scotland announced on Thursday were in the Grampian health board area
Ms Sturgeon said was likely to announce new rules by early next week, with tightening guidance currently under “active consideration”.
She said: “We are looking at whether we need to tighten up the regulations and the guidance around hospitality.
“That could include taking some things that are currently guidance and giving them the backing of law, or it could be looking at, from our experience of hospitality, other particular risk factors that our current guidance maybe doesn’t properly cater for.
“That is under active consideration right now. And without setting hares running before I properly announce this, a concern based superficially on what we see in Aberdeen, there seems to potentially be an issue with people going from one pub to another. That’s something we can’t simply ignore.”
Any move away from the one metre exemption in particular would be controversial, with many businesses saying they would find it impossible to operate profitably if they were forced to follow two metre distancing. Questions would also be raised on how any effective ban on pub crawls could be enforced.
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon was urged by the Scottish Tories to give NHS Grampian “everything it takes” to fight the outbreak, after it emerged that only eight of Scotland’s 575 contact tracing call handlers were seconded to Aberdeen to help. So far, 233 contacts of people to have tested positive have been traced, with a further rise in infection numbers expected to be announced on Friday.
Allan Henderson, director of the McGinty’s Group which owns nine venues in Aberdeen, said the link to pub crawls had been exaggerated, with his establishments, and many others, operating a booking system.
“Some people who had been in that pub [The Hawthorn that was initially linked to the Aberdeen outbreak] had then gone to other places over the next five or six days,” he told the BBC. “Given the scale of what’s been going on in Aberdeen, there’s been a fair bit of social media hysteria around it.”
However, Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and an influential adviser to Ms Sturgeon, said there was a need to look at tougher measures. She said: “It does seem to be that going to pubs or bars do easily become super-spreading events, where many people get infected and go on to infect others. We’ve seen this in Aberdeen, where progress had been made over the past few months.
“What this points to is the hard choices - we can’t have it all. I think we need to look at if these pubs have all complied with the guidance, what needs to change in the guidance to prevent something like this happening again. Other countries have even had curfews to prevent this kind of thing happening.”