We need more transparency on covid data by Tim Martin
Government policy in the four UK parliaments, and in the Republic of Ireland is implicitly based on the assumption there is a high level of covid-19 transmission in pubs. This approach by governments is obvious since pubs have been among the last to open, after the various lock-downs finished.
Pubs can be crowded, behaviour can be uninhibited and the general warmth and conviviality seem, on the surface, to offer a plausible basis for transmission of the virus. Indeed, an outbreak of the virus in Aberdeen seems, for many people, to have reinforced the assumptions about the role played by pubs.
Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, told Radio 5 Live on 6 August there had “been an outbreak associated with pubs” and for “90% of cases, that was how they caught it”. He said that “was not a surprise because this has happened in other countries.... there was a big one in New Zealand, for example”.
The professor also said: “The risk factor of going to a pub is you’re inside. That raises the likelihood of transmission. Maybe it’s hot and a bit steamy – helps the virus to get about.” The professor added: “We know one thing that really gets the virus going in terms of spread is heavy breathing. Whether there was any sign of that involved….like singing and so on….I don’t know.”
The professor’s categorical assertions indicate he has strong scientific evidence to back his claims. Nevertheless, with covid-19 there is much uncertainty, and people with a high level of general scepticism, or scientific enquiry, will legitimately question these sorts of assumptions.
Yet in the month before lock-down, when infections were approaching their peak, according to professor Simon Wood, of Bristol University, there was no real evidence of outbreaks in JD Wetherspoon pubs, or among staff. By lock-down on 20 March only five of our 43,000 staff had tested positive, even though they were working in the busiest pubs in the UK, at the tail end of the winter, when the virus was rampant in the country.
These observations do not amount to scientific evidence and we had no direct evidence at all from customers, but it appeared strange, given the seriousness of the pandemic and evidence of increasing positive tests, ICU admissions and fatalities. Shortly after the UK’s lock-down, a German epidemiologist, interviewed by the BBC, said there are a lot of things about the virus we don’t know.
He couldn’t understand, for example, why there were no reported cases at that time within German hair salons, which appeared completely counterintuitive, given the close body contact, the high temperatures and humid atmosphere. Schools are perhaps another example of the covid-19 paradox, since they are normally hotbeds of transmission for viruses, including coronaviruses like the common cold.
However, it seems the transmission of covid-19 in schools, subject to common-sense caveats, is almost non-existent. Where the virus is concerned, “nothing is but what is not” as Shakespeare once said, in another context.
Since pubs have reopened and the level of testing has dramatically increased, there has been a handful of individual cases of positive tests for the virus in our pubs but nothing, it appears, which could be described as an outbreak and there appears not to have been, up until now, a case of transmission from person to person among staff or from staff to customers – or vice versa.
Obviously, there is some uncertainty in making this sort of statement, since it’s probably impossible to be absolutely certain as to how a virus has been transmitted in an individual case, but most cases seem to be linked to contacts outside work.
Given the importance of the pub industry to its staff, customers and as a taxpayer to the Exchequer, it would be very useful if professor Pennington could publish the basis of his assumptions, so they could be thoroughly analysed and peer-reviewed.
It seems clear there have been high levels of transmission in hospitals, care homes, abattoirs and certain production facilities. Until now, the evidence surrounding pubs in the UK has really been based on supposition. The situation presents an excellent opportunity for a proper scientific investigation into an extremely important industry.
Given the time that has elapsed since the first outbreaks in the UK, there has been ample opportunity for this sort of analysis and it may well be professor Pennington and others are possessed of information that is not available to the public.
Tim Martin is chairman and founder of JD Wetherspoon