Curfew chaos should have been foreseen, say scientists

The new 10pm closing time came into force in England on Thursday in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus infections.

People in Soho, London, after pubs and restaurants were subject to a 10pm curfew
People in Soho, London, after pubs and restaurants were subject to a 10pm curfew

Ministers should have foreseen the problems a “hard” 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants have caused, some scientists advising the Government have said.

Over the weekend, large crowds gathered in city and town centres following the new closing time which came into force in England on Thursday in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus infections.

Long queues were seen outside off-licences as people rushed to buy more alcohol while others piled on to public transport with little or no social distancing.

The scenes prompted Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to call for an urgent review of the measure amid fears it could be doing “more harm than good”.

However, Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was always “predictable” that ejecting people on to the streets at the same time would lead to crowds forming.

Prof Michie, a behavioural scientist at University College London, said it was “especially concerning” that people were being pressed together in the confined spaces of public transport and that it was of the “utmost importance” ministers listened to scientific advice.

“These consequences of the curfew undermine the gains saved by shortening the latter part of the evening and may even be counterproductive,” she said.

“The measure is another example of a restriction brought in outwith a coherent strategy and without sufficient consultation with relevant experts and communities.”

Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist who also advises the Government, said it was another example of “patrician policymaking”.

“When were any of those involved in making this decision last in a city centre pub at closing time? The disdain for the night-time economy reflects the puritan streak in public health that has marked so many interventions,” he said.

“Anyone with a basic knowledge of sociology, anthropology, socio-legal studies or criminology would have predicted the transport chaos that Andy Burnham has described – and the street parties that we have seen elsewhere.”

Mr Burnham said he had received reports of supermarkets “absolutely packed out to the rafters” following closing time on Saturday with people rushing to buy more alcohol so they could carry on drinking.

“I think there needs to be an urgent review of the emerging evidence from police forces across the country,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“My gut feeling is that this curfew is doing more harm than good. It creates an incentive for people to gather in the street or more probably to gather in the home.

“That is the opposite of what our local restrictions here are trying to do. I don’t think this has been fully thought through.”

John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation, said police had difficulty dispersing large crowds that gathered with only limited numbers of officers available.

“You might only have one or two people in a busy high street at 10pm when hundreds and hundreds of people are coming out on to the streets,” he told Today.

“My colleagues will do the best they can to encourage and coerce people to move on but it is really difficult.

“All that you need is a hostile group that turns against those officers and the resources for that city centre are swallowed up dealing with that one incident.”

Health minister Helen Whately said ministers were seeking to learn from experience but that the Government had had to act in response to the rising infection rates.

“It is clearly early days. We have just changed this rule last week. We keep an open mind on what is the best way to go about it,” she told Today.

“We are constantly learning and seeing what has the most impact but we clearly need to take a step because of what we have seen with the rates going up across the country.”

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