The clock struck 10pm and the party was over at pubs, bars and restaurants across the country this weekend – but not everyone went home.
Photos and videos taken during the first weekend of the Covid-19 curfew show people piling into supermarkets to buy alcohol, then drinking and dancing in the street. Those who tried to get home were forced onto crowded public transport.
Footage of the crowds prompted Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, to call for an “urgent review” of the curfew.
“My gut feeling is that this curfew is doing more harm than good,” he said on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme. “It’s potentially contradictory because it creates an incentive for people to gather in the streets or more probably gather in the home. I don’t think this has been fully thought through to be honest.”
Looking at the images and videos from the weekend, Dr Julian W Tang, honorary associate professor of Respiratory Sciences at the University of Leicester says he can “understand and share” Burnham’s concerns.
“Ideally, as per current guidelines, people leaving the pub should do so in their groups of 6 ‘bubbles’ and wear masks when they board public transport – but it’s understandably easy to forget this after several drinks,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“All of this is very confusing for the public,” he says. “It will take time to get used to this – and for people to find their own practical ways to deal with these tighter restrictions. But as we know, unfortunately, this virus is very unforgiving – and as we take time to get used to each new measure, we will see it spreading further.”
Professor Susan Michie, director of UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, agrees the current system is flawed, saying there are “three sets of predictable consequences” of closing pubs and restaurants at 10pm. These are:
Ejecting everyone at the same time onto the streets and then many onto public transport creates crowds; from a transmission point of view this is especially concerning in the enclosed spaces of public transport.
Where people have a routine of finishing a social night out at a certain time, having this curtailed suddenly leads to continuing socialising after the curfew, including in people’s houses.
People may compensate for the earlier closing time by starting to drink earlier and drinking more rapidly towards the end, leading to more disinhibition and therefore less distancing between people.
“These consequences of the curfew undermine the gains saved by shortening the latter part of the evening and may even be counterproductive,” she says. “The measure is another example of a restriction brought in without a coherent strategy and without sufficient consultation with relevant experts and communities.”
Dr Flavio Toxvaerd, who researches optimal control of infectious diseases at the University of Cambridge, adds that “we have seen this type of measure backfire before”.
“In March, the London Underground reduced services, hoping that only key workers would use it,” he says. “Instead, we saw trains crowded with commuters.”
What’s the solution, then? Dr Toxvaerd says when demand is concentrated at certain hours of the day, as is the case with pubs, “services need to be staggered”. Or, he says, a solution could be to scrap the 10pm leaving time completely and instead issue those visiting the pub with a time stamp on their arrival and a set time to leave – as swimming pools have been doing.
“We need to be creative and ensure we make the least damage to the economy while keeping in mind the effect on social activity on the spread of the disease,” he says.
Dr Tang agrees, suggesting pubs could stagger leaving times by telling tables to leave one-by-one as 10pm approaches. He also suggests a “designated driver” approach: “Maybe, there could be a member of the group designated to remind people to stay in their bubble leaving the pub,” he adds.
Andy Burnham suggested a curfew on alcohol sales, banning stores from selling booze post-9pm, saying it might stop revellers from piling into shops and drinking on the street.
It’ll be several weeks until we see any knock-on effect of the curfew and even then, it’s hard to attribute virus trends to any single health policy. For example, if cases fall, it’ll be hard to know if this is because of local lockdowns, the nationwide curfew, the rule of six, or all three.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at UEA and expert in infectious diseases, says he’s not aware of “any direct evidence” that a curfew helps reduce risk of Covid-19 transmission. However, he adds that in theory it could help – “but how much depends on a lot of other factors,” he says.
“Do people cram into a pub more tightly when it is open, do they then all go back to one of their homes afterwards, do people get less drunk? It is clear from news reports that drunk people cannot socially distance adequately,” he says.
“In theory, they should have benefit [from a curfew], but the difference between theory and reality may be wide.”
HuffPost UK asked the Department of Health and Social Care if the government intended to review or change the curfew in light of the footage from this weekend and Andy Burnham’s concerns.
A spokesperson directed us towards health minister Helen Whately’s interview on BBC Radio 4, but did not offer further comment.
In the interview, Whately said the government was keeping an “open mind” about the coronavirus regulations that came into force in England on Thursday.
“It is clearly early days,” she said. “We have just changed this rule last week. We keep an open mind on what is the best way to go about it. The steps that we have taken, particularly with the 10pm curfew, is something that we have done in some places during the course of the summer where we saw localised outbreaks and hospitality being part of the picture.”
She added that the government is “constantly learning and seeing what has the most impact”.