Harder than the first lockdown – Aberdeen’s Stuart McPhee on what went wrong and what can be done to stop it happening again


Stuart McPhee, Director of Siberia Bar and Hotel – gives us an update on what, in his view, needs to be done to stop local lockdowns and his assessment on what went wrong in Aberdeen and some solutions too…

This article is my assessment as to why we find ourselves in a local lockdown 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 the lockdown restrictions that have been imposed on Aberdeen city after the recent rise in COVID cases. The media will have you believe it all 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. I have set them out below as well as my thought on how we remedy them and move forward.

For every layer, there is a reason why it has fallen down but there are solutions too.

If we can all work together on achieving a balanced approach to recovery, we can help to protect some 14,000 jobs that are tied to the hospitality industry across the city. Not to mention those not directly tied; the graphics design companies, the marketing agencies, the printing firms, food producers and suppliers, drinks brands, coffee companies, joiners, painters, electrician, catering companies, equipment suppliers and the list goes on. We owe it to all of them to BUILD BACK BETTER.

From both businesses and the general public, there has been varying degrees compliance. Some who adhere to it 24/7 and some who think “aw’ it will be alright if it’s just this once, come on?” But the latter attitude is what prevents us from all moving forward.

We realise that there is a lot being asked of customers at this stage but the rules apply to everyone.  Customers, if asked to leave a queue, should leave the queue. If personal details are required for track and trace, DO NOT falsify the information. If you are asked to self-isolate while you are waiting on test results – DO IT. The wider community risk can be seen in our city right now if we don’t follow what we are being asked to do

Potential Solutions: 

No queuing so customers don’t have to be responsible for distancing in a queue! Stronger government direction on how we enforce the households rule strictly. Use app technology to give customers real-time walk-in availability so they can perhaps queue virtually.

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 apply that universally.

A public campaign aimed at customers emphasising their 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, build confidence back with them then that will help build back confidence with 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 to restimulate their businesses and the local economy and hire more staff and generate wealth as a business does.

Some of this was slightly misplaced and in doing so the safety messages and guidance got lost in the pursuit of profit. Most businesses have followed the guidance and put everything in place internally and externally. But if the demand from customers hadn’t been there then this would not have been as much of an issue.

Consumer demand since we reopened is missing from this part of the narrative. Anecdotally, Aberdeen’s demand was massively outstripping that of other city centres in the country. I estimate we were busier than we were pre lockdown by a factor of three Sunday to Wednesday, and on Fridays and Saturday, we maintained high levels of income, despite running at less than half the capacity.

Customers have been coming to bars and pubs by the truckload over the period, which is great for business but causes the first part of the problem. If there was not as much demand and not as many 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 etc. So 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 as you can only visit the toilet so many times within two hours, only consume so much alcohol within two hours, only do so many things within that period and still adhere to what we are asking you to do). This control measure led to the perceived increase in pub crawling we have probably seen since we re-opened. Customers booking 2 hours here, 2 hours there, which is extremely difficult to combat, especially if they are going to venues that are booking only and one person in the party books one table in one venue and they other the other table at the next. The issue here is do you stick to the control for the benefit of your venue, but to the 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 secondly, 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.

Stricter enforcement is required from both national and local government. Perhaps we should consider the potential for reducing capacities of larger venues, a change or staggering capacities in relation to the terminal hour at the end of trading so crowds disperse in a managed fashion. I.e an example 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 definitely have their role to play. The spaces for people programme and pedestrianisation in Aberdeen was widely welcomed to enable social distancing. As a result space was opened up and 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 created enough extra licensed space for too many people in too concentrated a space that has compounded 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. These licenses are granted on an occasional basis and as such the review of these within the two-week window should be rigorous and not a cursory, copy and paste. We need standardised recommendations from LSO and the Police.

From one-man shops to the big multi operators the same standards should be expected. No one should be scared to tackle the national chains for non-compliance. No one should be scared to shut them down if they think they are taking not complying. 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 hymn sheet up and down the country and 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 queuing and enforcing social distancing seems to be left to venues to deal with. When it gets out of control, as we have seen, there needs to be recourse for authority to step in

We need a 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 backup.

After being told I had someone visit the premises with a positive test from a member of staff, confusion arose. Nobody knew what to do in this instance because it came directly from that person. News like this perhaps travels faster than test and protect in a local setting. The advice from them was: Did staff have symptoms (NO), the advice from EHO: you should deep clean (the place is cleaner than ever) but 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 began.

The trade needs a 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 Aberdeen’s 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.

In conclusion, meetings must be sought with the relevant bodies 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 feedback to me on this;



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