A bad rip off of “Cotten Eye Joe” lyrics, my apologies. This article is my assessment as to why we find ourselves in a local lock down in Aberdeen. Proof that the virus is very much still as dangerous as it ever was; and if given the opportunity can take hold rapidly.
We all know about the lockdown restrictions that have subsequently been imposed on Aberdeen city after the recent rise in covid cases. The next part of the story the media will have you believe relates it back to bars and hospitality in the city centre. While there is a portion of that blame to be laid at their door, there are a few layers to it and I wanted to just get things out from my head and set them out into words below as a blueprint for how we remedy them and move forward.
For every layer there is a reason why it’s fallen down, for every part we have fallen down there are solutions.
If we can all work together on achieving a balanced approach to recovery, we can help to protect the some 14,000 jobs that are tied to the hospitality industry across the city. Not to mention those not directly tied; the graphic design companies, the marketing agencies, the printing firms, food producers and suppliers, drinks brands, coffee companies, joiners, painters, electrician, catering companies, equipment suppliers; the list goes on and on.
We owe it to all of them to BUILD BACK BETTER.
Personal and corporate responsibility
From both businesses and the general public there has been varying degrees of seriousness in this department. Some who take it as gospel that they must adhere to this 24/7 and some who think “awch it will be alright if it’s just this once, come on?”. But the latter none compliant attitude is what stops us from all moving forward.
We realise that there is a lot being asked of you all at this stage but follow the FACTS sober or otherwise and we will all get on fine. These rules apply to everyone, if someone asks you to leave a queue leave the queue. If you are asked to leave your details for track and trace, DO NOT falsify your information. If you are asked to self isolate while you are waiting on test results for the love of Christ, DO IT. Your sacrifice may come at a massive personal toll, but the wider community risk can be seen in our city right now if we don’t follow what we are being asked to do.
No queuing so there is no responsibly for distancing in it.
Stronger government direction on how we enforce the households rule strictly.
Emphasis on strict controls within premises (false data = refuse entry) and use the framework you already have at your disposal. Customers are invited in on the basis of your entry conditions, if they are not paying attention at that point, turn them away. General non compliance means removal, work on a yellow card red card system and apply it universally. Overall public campaigning so they are aware, as customers, as to how they have a role in keeping our staff safe and businesses going. Businesses must demonstrate strong protection methods for staff to keep them safe and put their concerns at the forefront, building confidence back within themselves which will in turn will help build back confidence in customers.
Overzealousness (not a criticism)
Businesses have been closed for 3 months, now we face another unknown period of closure. Some went after recouping these losses harder than others in an attempt to restimulate their businesses/ the local economy, and to be able to hire more staff and generate wealth as business does. Some of this is slightly misplaced and in doing so the safety messages and guidance got lost in pursuit of profit. Most businesses have followed the guidance and put everything in place internally and externally. Making this happen is a fundamentally tricky one, because if the demand from customers wasn’t there then this would not have been as much of an issue.
The truth of consumer demand during the time since we have been reopening is missing from this part of the narrative. Anecdotally, our demand was massively outstripping that of other city centres in the country. My own experience Sunday – Wednesday were around 3x as busy as they were pre lockdown and our strong days such as Fridays and Saturdays maintained high levels of income, despite running on less than half the capacity of before. Customers have been coming to bars and pubs by the truckload over the period, which is great for business and causes the first part of the problem. If there was slightly less demand and slightly fewers customers, there would not be people working to see how many they can fit at a table. The amount of enquires from members of the public we had for tables larger than our set group size of 6 was frightening. Enquires of “can we sit next to this table”, “can we add two people to the table” etc. If customers are going to flock in their hundreds they also have a really important part to play in working and living by the guidelines.
Most venues implemented a 2 hour time slot to control customers within the venue (such a set number of toilet visits within the two hours / a maximum consuption of alcohol and the ability to only do so many things within that period while still adhering to the house rules). This control measure led to the perceived increase in pub crawling which we have probably seen since reopening. Customers booking 2 hours here and 2 hours there, which is extremely difficult to combat, especially if visiting venues which require pre-booking only (one person books one venue table while their friend books the next venues). The issue here is, do you stick to the control for the benefit of your venue – but to wider detriment – or do we increase the time limit to 3 hours or 4 hours going forward. This one has a really difficult trade off, as the time slots you can fit in per table lower if you increase the dwell time so it may make your situation less financially viable.
I’ll cover this in fuller detail within my next blog point, but this cannot be allowed to manifest itself again, stricter enforcement is required across national and local government.
Some more radical solutions include considering the potential of reduced capacities at larger venues, a change or a staggering of capacities in relation to terminal hour at the end of trading allowing crowds disperse in a managed fashion (for example; a 200 cap venue cuts to 100 cap from 9 – 11pm, 50 from 11-midnight).
Removing controls such as time limits in venues to stop pub crawling.
Lack of enforcement (This is not a criticism)
Local authorities and the local police force also add a layer to this debate as-well. The spaces for people programme and pedestrianisation in the city centre, for me, is a widely welcome project to enable social distancing. As a result, space was opened up where businesses were encouraged to apply to create new licensed areas under the occasional license framework. This was something being employed across the country; but Aberdeen seems to have create enough extra licensed space for too many people in too concentrated a space that has compounding the issues around social distancing. This extra licensed space creates more drinking room in a concentrated area that all stops at the same time, 10pm. (see previous note about staggered closing times in venue). These licenses are granted on an occasional basis and as such the review of these within the Two week window should be rigourous and not a cursory, copy and paste here’s what we want standardised recommendations from LSO or Police.
From one man shops to the big multi operators the same standards should be expected and no one should be scared to tackle the national chains for non compliance. No one should be scared to shut down a spoons if they think they are taking the piss. If it is to be the Environmental health department that is responsible for enforcing these measures in the round they should be all singing from the same hymnsheet up and down the country. They should also be given the staff to make sure that compliance can be monitored not just on a quiet morning or afternoon but also at peak times to ensure that standards do not slip
Police Scotland’s remit in this seems lost to me, the grey areas of queue and enforcing social distancing seems to be left to venues to deal with. Which when it gets out of control as we have seen there needs to be recourse for authority to step in
Joined up approach from EHO departments, given appropriate resource to carry out the challenging task at hand, venues should be given a clear inspection such as one carried out for food hygiene practices that relates exclusively to covid procedures.
The police to be given clear recourse to also shut down venues who are not complying and the coronavirus legislation should be dealt with.
Overall a stamping of authority on top of the guidance as opposed to leaving it up to the operators to be the sole enforcers, we need the back up.
The immediate aftermath
After being told I had someone visit the premises with a positive test from a member of staff, Confusion abound. Nobody knows what to do in this instance when it comes directly from that person. News like this perhaps travels faster than test and protect in a local setting. The advise from them was do staff have symptoms (NO), the advise from EHO should you deep clean (place is cleaner than ever) and no one knew what to do with that information. We had to make our own decision, as I’m sure many have seen, on consultation with staff to close before the new lockdown restrictions begun.
Potential Solution (BUT NEEDS TO HAPPEN)
Clear concise checklist process. Who is supposed to contact you and what happens as a result.
I am led to believe the process is that if you have a case the EHO will contact you to confirm this, and in abereeens case that is not connected to the list that was produced by the contact tracing team at NHS grampian.
This process should have been made clear from the get go.
Confidence should not be lost as a result of this instance of one person who has tested positive being on the premises; if the premises are doing all they can to mitigate the risk they should trust in their procedures. The theory of how we are set up, with the constant cleaning, the distanced tables, the well ventilated insides, the table service, all the measures we put in place should manage the risk in this instance, but there is no 100% cast iron guarantee.
Meetings must be sought with all to draw a line under the mistakes that were made, assess the solutions that may be the way forward and rebuild confidence to prevent an industry wide collapse in the city. (This is already happening at pace)
Support for the area must be forthcoming from a national or a UK government level. The fact that we have gone into a local lockdown regardless of circumstance and no support is prepackaged and ready to go is beyond me. This situation is inevitable given the risks posed by this virus and there needs to be clearer medium term planning around this to help all sectors through this.
Moving on we must work collaboratively, positivity and learn the lessons from where it has gone wrong. We really need to create an approach that solves the problems so that this does not repeat itself across the country and we can continue our route out of lockdown. The road is long and we must stick together as an industry and as a city to build back better.
At present, we will be governed by the numbers which we hope will improve as a result of the interventions and we all stand ready to serve once again when given the chance and want to help develop new guidelines to benefit all so the risk of future lockdowns can be minimalised.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, if you do have anything you would like to feed back to me on this;
Photo credit: Nuart Aberdeen