Airbnb is reassuring the public that strict protocols are in place for hosts to minimise Covid-19 infection risk in properties within shared access buildings in Scotland, as health experts outlined their views on contact tracing and cleaning practices.
Hotels and all self-catering accommodation can reopen today along with a host of other services like bars, restaurants, cinemas and hair salons in line with phase three of the Scottish Government's 'route map' exit from lockdown.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says the latest changes are the "highest risk" so far in the process and has urged the public to stick to the rules, pointing to a recent virus resurgence in California, USA, which meant services there shutting down again.
Professor Hugh Pennington, a leading bacteriologist at Aberdeen University, says people gathering indoors in pubs, cafes and restaurants is likely to be the biggest risk for infection and virus spread here in Scotland.
But he says people using platforms like Airbnb and Booking.com to let their properties should ensure they keep track of who is staying there in case contact tracing is required, and that risk will also depend on whether people are travelling from Covid-19 hotspots and how much individual responsibility is taken by travellers.
Scottish Government guidance regarding test and protect data collection only applies to hospitality businesses and not accommodation providers, but details of lead guests are recorded with Airbnb and other guests would be contacted through them if required.
Professor Pennington says the likelihood of an Airbnb property becoming the centre of any investigation on a regular basis is low. He said: "I suspect most people will be coming from England and it comes back to the border issue – but it depends on which part of England you come from. For example, if someone is coming from Cornwall the chances of infection are less than in Glasgow. There are higher levels of infection in places like Leicester and this skews the figures.
"If people staying in a holiday let are having parties then I suspect it would be mentioned - and that is the sort of thing which increases transmission risk - and police or public health might need to take steps to address that."
However, Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University, Linda Bauld, said: “You can not always assume the lead contact tracer, for example with a group of friends, will have everyone else’s contact details.”
She said that, because Airbnbs can sometimes accommodate several family groups, they need to be giving information to lead guests to ensure everyone staying there provides contact numbers.
Self caterers working ‘incredibly hard’
Concerns over the regulation of short-term holiday let properties in Edinburgh have been well documented, with a recent piece of analysis suggesting only one in 477 commercial short-term lets in Edinburgh has proper planning permission.
Short-term lets, where a property is let for a short period of time during the year, have been blamed for antisocial behaviour in some areas of Edinburgh as well as pushing up house and rent prices in saturated parts of the city such as the Old Town.
But Association of Scotland's Self-Caterers (ASSC) chief executive, Fiona Campbell, says self caterers have been working "incredibly hard" to reopen safely and have put in place robust and Scottish Government-backed cleaning protocols developed by the ASSC.
These include risk assessment templates and cleaning checklists, as well as detailed guidance on cleaning and disinfecting.
Guidance makes specific reference to recent studies by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine which suggest the virus can live on surfaces like wood and cloth for more than a day, glass for more than two days and plastic and stainless steel for at least four days.
The guidance also says that if the host or owner hears about a possible infection with a guest in a property with communal access, they should attend “as soon as possible” and use disposable materials to wipe down all door handles, entrance systems, stairwell bannisters and light switches to try and minimise infection risk.
Professor Bauld says small numbers of new Covid-19 infections in Scotland keeps the risk low just now but that movement from more highly infected areas, such as parts of England or overseas, will inevitably create higher risk in all settings around Scotland.
One recent study found that an asymptomatic traveller with Covid-19 recently returned to China from the USA and was told to quarantine but, after using a lift in their building, unwittingly passed on the virus to a neighbour - despite not being in the lift at the same time - which led to a cluster of 71 positive cases.
This report illustrates how a single asymptomatic Covid-19 infection could result in widespread community transmission.
In the context of short-term lets with shared access to a building, professor Bauld reiterates that it's up to property owners to make sure adequate arrangements are in place and that risk assessments and checklists are completed.
When asked if Airbnb property owners would be as likely to take cleaning protocols as seriously as other types of businesses, she said: "I would imagine places like Airbnbs might be less scrupulous than businesses like restaurants."
'Enhanced cleaning protocol'
Airbnb has adopted an 'enhanced cleaning protocol' for UK hosts and guidelines are informed by the European and US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and developed in partnership with leading hospitality and medical experts including the former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy.
It involves a five-step cleaning process through their quick start guide and cleaning handbook with guidance on the use of PPE, how to clean every room in the home, what to disinfect and taking stock of cleaning supplies.
Hosts who commit to following the cleaning protocol will receive a "special callout" on their listing so that guests know they are committed to an enhanced cleaning routine.
If hosts do not commit to the cleaning protocol, they can choose to opt into a new feature called "booking buffer" which automatically blocks reservations for 72 hours between stays to allow for cleaning activity.
An Airbnb spokesperson said: "Airbnb has partnered with global experts and organisations to set new industry-leading cleaning standards for hosts, including guidance from the EU and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Our measures have been awarded a Safe Travels seal by the World Trade and Tourism Council and will help hosts prioritise public health as they welcome guests back, reigniting both their livelihoods and the Scottish economy."
Fiona Campbell, ASSC chief executive, said: “Scotland’s self-caterers were proud to lead Scottish tourism in getting back to business on July 3.
“As the trade body representing Scotland’s £723million self-catering sector, the ASSC fully supports the Scottish Government’s evidence-led approach on easing the lockdown restrictions on tourism.
“The Scottish Government said clearly that there are no reasonable grounds to delay the opening of self-catering properties further and they were right to do so.
“We are glad that Ministers have come to this decision despite the bitter carping from the side-lines we’ve seen, mostly from the same tiresome individuals with nothing much to say and even less evidence from which to say it.
“To recover fully from the effects of COVID-19, Scotland’s economy will need a tourism sector that it can rely on but that also lives up to its responsibilities, Scotland’s self-caterers, both in our capital and elsewhere, are ready and raring to get on with doing just that.”
Booking.com was also contacted for details on what protocols they have in place but did not respond.