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LONDON VIEW | Can an Hour Less at the Pub Help Beat Covid-19 Spread? Britain's Govt Thinks So

File photo of people drink outside a pub at the Covent Garden shopping and dining district, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London. (Reuters)

File photo of people drink outside a pub at the Covent Garden shopping and dining district, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London. (Reuters)

Call it the Second Coming or more of the first, the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Europe parallel to the rising numbers in India.

Sanjay Suri

Scientific theory can at times come down to quite simple sums. So the two leading UK government scientists figured in an address to the nation this week that a continually doubling rate of virus infections could lead to 50,000 infections a day by mid-October, which in turn could bring 200 deaths a day come winter, if the spread of the virus is left unchecked that is. They did point out that the projected trajectory indicates a risk and it is not a prediction.

The dire sums were intended no doubt to scare people into following new rules. The approach has been quite different to that across many parts of India that are seeing the virus spread. Similar sums could of course be done in India, though we hear less of what the total could be a few weeks or a couple of months from now should the rising pattern continue unchecked. The Indian government and state administrations are not handing out the doomsday scenarios Britain has begun to.

Call it the Second Coming or more of the first, the virus is spreading rapidly in Europe parallel to the rising numbers in India. But steps to counter it are beginning to differ in some unexpected ways, as are government projections from the optimistic in India to the pessimist in Europe, certainly in Britain.

Given the gloomy warning from UK government scientists, the new risk reduction measures seem odd: the headline measure announced on Tuesday is that pubs, bars and restaurants must close an hour earlier, at 10pm rather than 11pm. Staff at restaurants and pubs will be required to wear masks, and so will customers, except as the Prime Minister pointed out perhaps unnecessarily, when they sit down to eat.

The Cabinet was deeply divided over opening of pubs and restaurants amid the rising virus. Several ministers wanted tighter curbs, the decision was in the end a compromise. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak wanted none of these curbs. He had floated an ‘Eat Out to Help Out Scheme’ under which the government footed half of all restaurant bills up to ten pounds per head per person on three days a week all of last month. That move clearly helped restaurant owners more than it did to help contain the spread of the virus. The government’s new moves acknowledge that a lot of the spread we are now seeing has originated in pubs and restaurants.

How effective the compromise decision on pubs can be seems doubtful. A counter-theory advanced sounds reasonable if not precisely scientific: that people may just start going to pubs a little earlier, and then drink faster and more. That could lead possibly, some believe probably, to more packed evenings, and we all know what that means for virus transfers.

Guests at wedding parties are being limited now to 15 from 30 earlier. We haven’t had the arithmetic on how many such 30-strong parties wedding take place, and how far those have fed the virus spread that 15 less at one of these will now limit. The effect on cutting the rate of weekly doubling cases could hardly be significant.

Other measures that were anticipated did not come. No limits have been announced on gatherings from different households. Up to 30 can still go to a funeral.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the principle behind these new moves: keeping the economy going while curbing the spread of the virus. That is of course a challenge every country faces, and every country is finding its own balance of policies to deal with this. But an hour’s cut in pub and restaurant hours? That will keep those businesses going no doubt but may do little to stop Covid going. Or those halved guests at weddings.

After an announcement just a couple of weeks back encouraging people to go back to work in offices, the government now wants people again to work from home as far as possible, except where unavoidable such as construction and retail. Whatever the new rules, no one is sure how soon any will be reversed. Some of this is down to adaptation in a fast-changing scenario. But this has been quite the most U-turning government Britain has had in a long time.

The new rules in Britain could last six months, Johnson warned. Which is to say they will stay all winter, unless the situation were to improve dramatically. But given the anticipated difficulties through winter, few hope that the all clear can be sounded before Christmas, or even shortly after. And few are expecting a mass vaccine rollout before early next year.

All of Europe is in for a winter of discontent. It will be lucky if it is no worse, and if the restrictions the government may have to bring in are no worse than heading home from the pub an hour earlier than usual.


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