Boris Johnson is coming under intense pressure to rethink his 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants after chaotic closing-time scenes led to warnings that it is causing “more harm than good”.
The imposition of early closing in England on Thursday has been followed by images of large numbers of drinkers spilling out of pubs and crowding streets and public transport in cities across the country.
Labour demanded a rapid review of the 10pm-5am hospitality closure orders, with shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth questioning “how effective they will be in containing the virus”.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called for a ban on alcohol sales in shops after 9pm, after reports that supermarkets were “packed to the rafters” with revellers stocking up on bottles and cans to carry on drinking in groups either outside or at home.
And police representatives told The Independent many young people appeared drunker than would normally be expected, apparently because they had been knocking drinks back quickly in anticipation of an early end to the evening.
“We’ve seen this weekend pictures of people piling out of pubs at 10 o’clock on the dot into busy streets, public transport packed, supermarkets busy as people buy more drink – how does this help contain the spread of the virus?” Mr Ashworth asked health secretary Matt Hancock in the House of Commons.
He demanded “a rapid and transparent review of all the evidence”, and called on the health secretary to report back by the end of the week.
The call came as local lockdown orders were tightened in the North-East of England, where infections have risen to more than 100 per 100,000 population, despite a 10pm curfew being in place for the past fortnight. Millions of people in the areas will be banned by law from Wednesday from mingling with members of other households in any indoor setting, including pubs and restaurants.
And parliamentary authorities performed a rapid U-turn to ban the serving of alcohol inside the Palace of Westminster after 10pm, following outrage at the news that bars and restaurants serving MPs and peers were exempt from the curfew.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had no plans for a review of the curfew, insisting that the 10pm rule “strikes the right balance” between allowing businesses to trade and reducing the risk of social distancing breaking down.
“These rules were introduced for a reason and the prime minister was clear when he addressed the nation on Tuesday that everyone has their part to play and we do need to pull together, and by doing so we can hopefully help to prevent the need for further restrictions,” said the spokesman.
“What we have seen is that there is a significant proportion of exposure to the virus in the hospitality sector which is even more pronounced in younger age groups, where we are seeing the most rapid rise in infections. Sadly, those infections are then passed on to older generations who are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or being hospitalised.
“These particular hours of 10pm closing have been used in local lockdown areas and experience there suggests that they do strike the right balance, allowing businesses to trade for the majority of the evening will reducing the risk of compliance with social distancing rules breaking down.”
Mr Hancock told MPs that any assessment of the success of the curfew must “take everything into the round”, including the level of social distancing likely to be observed if drinking was allowed later into the night.
“One of the reasons that we brought in this policy is because we’ve seen it work in other countries,” he said.
But the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said police in towns and cities across the country had been forced to deal with “congregations” of drinkers who wanted to carry on their evenings over the weekend.
Brian Booth, chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, told The Independent many appeared to be drunker than normal by 10pm because they had been “cramming it in sooner”.
“They were just congregating on the street,” he added. “People think ‘We’re going to go out get blottoed and have a street party and it will be great’.
“I don’t know the science behind the 10pm curfew but all you can surmise is it’s meant to stop people getting so drunk and lairy, but people are just going to go out sooner and do what the youngsters do and preload.”
It came as violence and sexual offending linked to the night-time economy rise back to pre-pandemic levels, while police are also being asked to enforce growing numbers of coronavirus laws.
Mr Burnham said that evidence of unforeseen consequences of the curfew were coming in from police forces across the country and called for an “urgent review” of its impact.
“My gut feeling is that this curfew is doing more harm than good,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It’s potentially contradictory because it creates an incentive for people to gather in the streets or more probably gather in the home. I don’t think this has been fully thought through to be honest.”
Backing calls for a review, York Central MP Rachael Maskell said the streets of her city were “filled out with young people enjoying themselves, partying, no social distancing and clearly creating the worst of environments” shortly after 10pm at the weekend.
And Worsley and Eccles South MP Barbara Keeley said the curfew “caused many problems at the weekend with crowds on the streets and on public transport”.
Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram said: “It is right that if the current restrictions are not proving to be enough, that the Government considers every option available to protect people and stop the spread of the virus.”
But he added: “However, if they are going to force another shutdown of the hospitality industry and a ban on all social gatherings, then they need to put in place proper financial support for councils and local public health teams, for business to prevent them from going under and to stop thousands of people losing their jobs through no fault of their own.”