Covid: Recent Scottish history shows folly of closing pubs at 10pm – Tom Wood

I often lament the lack of institutional memory. As the years go by, we are condemned to endure the same mistakes repeated time and again – expensive lessons forgotten or ignored.
Closing pubs at 10pm led to people ordering several drinks just before being forced out onto the street (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)Closing pubs at 10pm led to people ordering several drinks just before being forced out onto the street (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
Closing pubs at 10pm led to people ordering several drinks just before being forced out onto the street (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest shining example is the return of the 10 o’clock swill – 10pm pub closing – which was recently re-introduced in an attempt to encourage social distancing in the night-time economy before pubs in the Central Belt were ordered to shut last week.

Whoever thought 10pm closing – pubs outwith the five central health board areas can still serve alcohol in beer gardens up until that time – would reduce alcohol consumption and drunken street gatherings had not done their homework!

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We are now told that early pub closure was not modelled by whatever ‘think tank’ does these things. It did not need to be, as anyone who experienced it the last time could have told them what would happen.

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Fond memories of last orders for 10pm a lesson to thwarted drinkers

It’s only a few decades ago that Scotland lived with the 10 o’clock swill. All pubs closed at 10pm and, while there were a few late licences, they were out of the ordinary.

It meant that at about 9.45pm many determined revellers would order multiple drinks, then swill them down before time was called. After a few minutes to drink up, it was chucking out time – sometimes literally – when all the patrons were decanted onto the streets at exactly the same time.

In areas blessed with numerous hostelries – so, in Edinburgh, places like Lothian Road, Rose Street or the High Street – the effects could be spectacular.

Hundreds of revellers, their inhibitions well lubricated, pitched onto the streets simultaneously.

If it was a balmy summer evening, policing the dispersal could be a challenge. Patrons loitered, caroused and skirmished in turn. Like herding cattle, momentum was the key, you had to keep the crowd moving.

Flashpoints were all at the pinchpoints – the taxi ranks, bus stops and chip shops.

As young beat police officers, we prayed for rain and a stiff easterly wind to help clear the streets. Fortunately, in Edinburgh, our invocations were often answered.Closing at 10pm ended with the introduction of more liberal licensing laws in the mid-70s. And it was easier for a while, with staggered closing alleviating the pressure.

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But over the years, as many licensing boards became lax, just about every corner shop became an off-licence and pub opening hours got later and later.

Eventually late closing and early opening almost met in the middle, which contributed to the hellish toll that alcohol takes on the people of Scotland.

Thankfully, over the last few years, the pendulum has started to swing back, with minimum alcohol pricing, caps on liquor licences and, it has to be said, a more measured approach to drinking by many young people, all helping to bring back some balance.

But the hard truth is that pubs, alcohol and social distancing just do not go together. Bringing back the 10 o’clock swill will not help and may make matters worse.

So the think tank will have to think again. Either that or pray for rain.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable.

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