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A new University of Stirling study is seeking to understand how the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on licensed premises can be effectively managed to protect emergency services.

The project – funded under the Scottish Government’s Rapid Research in COVID-19 programme – will examine policy options for reopening pubs, nightclubs and restaurants to minimise the impact on ambulance services, and to protect customers and staff from the virus.

The team will investigate how the re-opening of premises could be phased in over time, and whether and how licence holders could minimise infection risks. The study will consider the way in which consumers and venues might respond to any easing of restrictions – in terms of alcohol consumption, intoxication, violence, sales and promotions.

The impact of current restrictions on ambulance service callouts will also be examined, as well as the potential impact should establishments reopen.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, of the Institute for Social Marketing and Health (ISMH) at Stirling, is leading the new project, which also involves Martine Stead, Deputy Director of ISMH, and Professor Jim Lewsey, of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow.

Professor Fitzgerald, an expert in alcohol policy, said: “Most pubs and nightclubs closed more than seven weeks ago, as part of the UK and Scottish Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Governments and the public are very interested in how licensed premises may begin to reopen – but there are risks involved. Whenever restrictions ease, businesses may seek to recoup losses and customers may choose to celebrate by drinking more than usual.

“The actions of businesses and consumers could have implications for how intoxicated people get, and have a knock-on impact on our emergency services. It is really important therefore, to understand the options available for easing restrictions.

“We will consult with a wide range of businesses, staff, policymakers and experts. One option could be to ease restrictions partially, or in a staggered way, potentially with measures remaining in place around sales, opening hours or venue capacities to minimise harm and impact on the emergency services.”

While it seems that the closure of bars and nightclubs across Scotland may have eased pressure on the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS), concerns have been raised about perceived increases in house parties and domestic violence during lockdown. In addition, it is possible that the Service could experience an increase in callouts – even above pre-pandemic levels – when restrictions are eased, if large numbers look to take advantage of any relaxing of rules.

Professor Lewsey, an expert in medical statistics, said: “This study has only been possible because it builds on a strong existing collaboration with the Scottish Ambulance Service, to better understand the impact of alcohol on ambulance call-outs more generally. We are delighted to have the opportunity to support the Service with relevant research at this challenging time.”

The research team will analyse SAS data on ambulance call-outs, interview premises owners and key stakeholders and may also examine customer behaviour and venue operation once the restrictions are eased, depending on the timing of any re-opening.

Professor Fitzgerald added: “Our aim is to feed information quickly and directly into policy and guidance – both at Scottish Government and local level – regarding the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on licensed premises.”

The new study – set to complete within six months – will build on data and preparatory work for two other projects – ‘The impact of minimum unit pricing on ambulance callouts in Scotland’, a study also funded by the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office, and a proposed study, ‘Evaluating later or expanded premises hours for alcohol in the night-time economy’, both supported by Scottish Ambulance Service.

The University of Stirling is leading 10 major projects investigating the impact of COVID-19 pandemic after receiving almost £500,000 in Scottish Government funding. In addition to this study, two further projects within the programme address the impact of the virus on the SAS: one considering the challenges faced by paramedics and another providing insight into the effect of psychiatric emergencies.

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