City centre returns to nightly ghost town with inevitable pub closures, as Sturgeon and Leitch helplessly cast around for solutions

by Colin Campbell

INVERNESS was effectively returned to virtual ghost town status at night following the announcement of new restrictions by Nicola Sturgeon yesterday.

Under the new rules pubs, restaurants and cafes will not be allowed to serve alcohol indoors. They can only open between 6am and 6pm for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Licensed premises can continue to serve alcohol outdoors until the 10pm curfew which was introduced last month.

The new curbs, which will begin on Friday, are not as draconian as those introduced in the central belt, which has seen the steepest increase in coronavirus infection rates, which yesterday rose to more than 1,000 new cases.

But for Inverness city pubs, the impact will be much the same.

Virtually none are equipped with layouts which will enable customers to drink outdoors.

And as the nights darken and the autumn chill sets in, the question is – who would want to drink outdoors anyway?

City centre pubs will inevitably be closed at night, amid warnings from licensed trade leaders that the new moves are “a death knell” for the industry.

They are only intended to last for two weeks, so this may only be a temporary interruption of the service they’ve been providing since reopening in July.

But as the Scottish Government struggles – almost helplessly – to try and contain the spread of the virus, if these experimental measures prove even partly successful in reducing infection rates there is little or no prospect of them being removed, with the risk of virus rates spiking up again.

City centre restaurants will remain open. But it’s likely that the no-alcohol ruling will lead to a further significant downturn in business there as well.

It’s a far cry from the resurgence in nightlife after pubs got back in business on July 15, when revellers celebrated with gusto after nearly four months of lockdown.

For several weekends, as Inverness news and views reported, all elements of caution and social distancing were either forgotten or ignored as people queued shoulder to shoulder to get into some hostelries.

Some pubs tried to ensure the rules were enforced – although there was scant visible evidence that their efforts were effective – but others appeared to disregard them altogether.

The reality that virtually everyone was aware of in advance proved to be 100 per cent correct – social distancing and booze don’t mix.

Following an outbreak of pub-related infections in Aberdeen and subsequent lockdown measures in the Granite City, pubs in Inverness and elsewhere were jolted into taking the virus threat much more seriously.

Strenuous efforts appear to have been made to bring the booze-driven free-for-all to an end.

Publicans now insist that all precautions are being followed and that their premises are not “virus hotspots”.

But a 10pm curfew imposed last month has now been followed by the toughest sanctions short of complete closure.

And for some, closure, for the time being at least, may be the only choice.

Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that she had decided against shutdown to enable friends to still meet in pubs, with concerns about “mental health” being taken into account.

But city hostelries will not view with much relish the prospect of their role being as social gathering points for chums chatting inside their premises while sipping glasses of lemonade.

Again, the restrictions will supposedly be in force for only two weeks. But in the broader circumstances the future for pubs already struggling to survive looks dauntingly bleak.

No ban on travel has been introduced, although people in the central belt have been urged not to travel outside their areas, so city hotels will be affected as well.

Occupancy rates rose to unexpectedly high levels after they reopened in July, with most being close to fully booked with an influx of “staycation” visitors. That was sustained throughout September, and although numbers are now decreasing there has not been a steep decline. That now seems much more likely.

And when – or if – the latest restrictions are lifted November will be on the horizon. Some hotel closures for the winter months look likely, if not inevitable.

The Scottish Government’s chief scientific adviser, Jason Leitch, has said the new restrictions introduced yesterday will “buy time” in the battle to bring the spread of the virus under control.

But in the seventh month of the epidemic, nothing being said either by scientists or by Nicola Sturgeon has a ring of confidence to it.

The coronavirus again has run out of control. Experimental measures will be applied in an effort to contain it.

But the air of certainty contained in Sturgeon’s daily briefings in recent months has all but vanished.

The overriding impression is the most obvious one. Winter is fast approaching. A second wave has already struck. And, other than casting around for solutions, they don’t know what to do about it.

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