Any move to limit time spent in pubs during the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions could lead to a growth in binge drinking, an addiction charity has said.
In the Republic of Ireland was proposed last night that pubs and restaurants will be allowed to reduce social distancing to one metre if they limit patrons to just 105 minutes inside their premises.
Pubs in Northern Ireland will reopen on July 3 but will have to primarily function as restaurants and offer substantial meals with table service.
Guidance is still to be issued to restaurant and pub owners by Stormont as to how reopening will work, but Colin Neill, the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, described the 105-minute rule — originally mooted as 90 — as a “non-starter”.
Publicans in counties Armagh and Down are also against any time limit because it would prove difficult to police and would add more pressure on staff.
Gary McMichael, chief executive of the addiction charity ASCERT, believes a time limit would lead to some people drinking as much as they could in a short period.
“Alcohol takes time to enter the bloodstream and taking a lot of alcohol over a short period of time can lead to acute intoxication,” he explained.
“After the person leaves the pub, their body will continue to absorb more of the alcohol they have already taken and they will continue to get more intoxicated, which could make them more vulnerable to harm.
“Not only is it harmful to binge drink, but the more drunk they are, the greater the risk of accidents, fights or sexual assaults.
“It is also likely this would encourage more ‘loading up’, where people will take excessive amounts of alcohol before they go out because their time in the pub will be limited.”
Hospitality Ulster’s Mr Neill agreed that a time limit would encourage binge drinking and urged the Executive to reduce the social distancing rule from two metres to one so pubs and restaurants can survive.
“If you’re only going to be allowed in the pub for 105 minutes, it would cause us more challenges because people would come in and drink excessively,” he said. “To save the businesses and save the jobs, we need to operate at one metre.”
Mr Neill said premises that could normally hold 200 people would be able to hold just half that number with a one-metre rule, adding that “if it’s two metres, it’s 12.5% capacity, which is 25 people”.
Lesa McCann, the proprietor of Lurgan’s Cellar Bar, said it would not be possible to run a business with a 105-minute limit.
If she was forced to tell her customers to leave in the middle of their meal or drink, that would ruin her “rapport” with them, she claimed.
“We need the guidelines. If when we serve our food up to nine o’clock, does that mean when the kitchen closes and the last plate is off the table? How long are we allowed to give those people at the tables to drink up?” she asked.
“There’s just a lot of guidelines that need to be put in place so none of us get it wrong and it means that we can let our customers know. If they know in advance, it puts people at ease. Everyone needs to work together and it’s just going to be a work in progress.”
Joe Webb, the general manager of Pretty Mary’s bar and food house in Moira, said the limit would not work for the Co Down pub because patrons regularly dropped in and out.
He added that policing any timeframe for customers would be incredibly difficult.
“I would have to start dictating to people that they have to book their slot,” he explained.
“I think that’s just too regimented.
“The first thing we need to see is getting the rule down to one metre and seeing what the legislation says after that. In a restaurant scenario, I could see that (time limit) working where people would book, but in a gastro pub it would be difficult to control and I think you would annoy a lot of people because they wouldn’t be used to something like that.”