The Gryphon spoke to virologist Dr. Stephen Griffin from the Leeds School of Medicine about the science behind the new rule.
Last week in a speech to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson laid out a set of new rules designed to combat the sharp rise in new coronavirus cases. The number of new cases per day had quadrupled in month and, accordingly, the UK’s Covid alert level had been raised from 3 to 4. This, he said, was “the moment when when we must act.”
Indoor sports will be subject to the rule of six, everyone riding in taxis will have to wear a mask and hospitality venues like cafes, restaurants and bars will be table service only, with all staff required to wear masks.
But the strict 10pm closing time for all hospitality venues has proven to be the most controversial new measure, sparking broad condemnation from politicians. I spoke with Dr Stephen Griffin from the School of Medicine here at the University of Leeds, on the impact of the new rule.
Dr Griffin’s comments had previously appeared in the i newspaper, where he warned of the risks of people leaving hospitality venues at the same time, in larger numbers. This worry was borne out over the weekend, with reports of large crowds in the streets of Soho in central London shortly after 10pm. Similar scenes were captured in Manchester and Birmingham, and worries were expressed about packed public transport services.
“You’re not invulnerable if you’re outside, if you’re in close proximity interacting with people,” Dr Griffin warned, adding “it’s not achieving what they’re setting out to achieve.”
The response from politicians was almost universally negative. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, said his gut told him that the rule would do more harm than good by incentivising people to gather in the streets and in homes.
So would the 10pm rule have the desired effect and bring the number of new cases down? I asked Dr Griffin if perhaps the 10pm closing time was a bad idea from the start, but he would not be drawn.
“I think you have to wait and see what the data says,” he said. “Only time will tell, but unfortunately we don’t have very much time.”
“I think there are plenty of measures we can introduce alongside this and probably will need to introduce very soon,” he added.
As could be expected, the hospitality industry has reacted angrily. Industry leaders rejected the idea that they were a significant contributor to new infections. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade association UKHospitality, has cited government data showing just five per cent of infections are related to hospitality.
Public Health England data for week 37 of 2020 showed that, of a total of 729 new infections, 34 could be linked to hospitality settings. That was in contrast to 110 linked to the workplace, 193 to educational settings and 313 to care homes.
I asked Dr Griffin if he thought the industry’s assessment of the data was accurate.
“There’s mixed messages in those data. It’s quite clear that hospitality venues do contribute, however they are probably not as big a contributor as some of the other activities.”
In his speech, the Prime Minister was eager to paint a picture of his government skilfully navigating a narrow and dangerous path. He claimed that at every stage they had “struck a delicate balance” between saving lives and “minimising the wider impact” of restrictions.
But one thing that was noticeably absent from the Prime Minister’s speech was any mention of expanded testing. In May the government promised a “world-beating” track and trace system, though by August only 72.4% of close-contacts were being contacted. So what is the state of the UK’s testing and tracing capabilities, and have the government managed to live up to their promise?
“They had a period of time where they could have got testing, and tracing – which is the most important thing, sorted out,” Dr Griffin said.
They didn’t really react until cases started going back up. And because of the nature of exponential spread and because the testing and tracing system isn’t working properly we are now behind where we understand where the epidemic is.”
It really was a case of not fixing the roof when the sun was shining, literally, summer was our opportunity. But we can still do it, we can get on top of this, if we get the testing sorted.”
“We could be testing students, we could be testing schools. With mass testing we would understand where this epidemic was going.”
I suggested to Dr Griffin that, given the lack of focus on testing and the seemingly low rate of infection in pubs, the new rule was perhaps an intentional attempt at distracting the public’s attention. But he turned that suggestion around, telling me “the 10 o’clock thing, it shouldn’t become a bigger issue than it is. It’s part of a series of measures, and it needs to be seen that way.”
“Let me be clear – we do need restrictions on people interacting in hospitality venues because it’s a high risk activity because you’re inside, you’re not wearing a mask, you’re in close proximity with people.”
Im actually of the mind that the restrictions we have in place at the moment aren’t stringent enough because I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to have half measures […] it’s not going to do enough.”
Why then is there such a focus on the 10pm rule? The key may be in the government’s lack of success in communicating the science.
“All the points they bring in, I don’t think they’re very good at getting across the rationale for why they’re doing them.”
Their messaging has been appalling,” he added.
Still, despite the avalanche of new rules and restrictions, the pubs are open and the public continues to fill them. I asked Dr Griffin for his advice to students on how to navigate the new situation and remain safe.
“Try and stay within as restricted a social group as you can, limit your interactions with other people,” he said. “Recognise that being indoors is more of a risk than being outdoors. Ventilation is key. The distance and the ventilation and the masks are the really key things.”
He also reminded students to use the testing facilities available to them.
“They need to make use of the testing facilities, there’s a testing facility on campus.”
I think any kind of alert to any kind of illness, symptoms wise, that they’re seeing – get yourself tested, isolate yourself, tell the people that you’ve been in touch with, download the app.”
It’s not the case that young people don’t get sick from this, at all. The idea that young people can just tolerate this virus passing between them is absolutely not true. It’s not just old people in intensive care.”
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