The sector has roundly criticised a study by the University of Stirling, which has questioned whether pubs can effectively and consistently prevent Covid-19 transmission risks.
The research was conducted in May to August last year and was based on 29 observations of premises of up to two hours each time.
As part of the study, researchers were said to have observed incidents including close physical interaction between customers and with staff, which frequently involved alcohol intoxication, and were "rarely effectively stopped by staff".
The new study – published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs – said its findings "will inform governments, public health experts, and policymakers in the UK and other countries as they consider the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and the risks of lifting restrictions".
The report researchers claim to have observed that sanitising stations in venues were not often used, that businesses did not take guests' contact details, tables were too close, one-way systems and ‘pinch points' were problematic, particularly toilets, and that in several venues staff wore no PPE, wore masks inappropriately, or removed them to talk to other staff or customers.
Incidents of greater concern were observed in 11 venues, including various combinations of singing, shouting or playing music; mixing between groups; standing and moving around the bar without distancing; customers taking photographs with other customers and staff; and shaking hands or embracing others who did not appear to be in their household.
Although the report said that in most venues there was no staff intervention or attempts to enforce restrictions observed and ‘light-hearted' attempts were largely ineffective, the report noted that Scottish government guidance does not detail exactly how bar or security staff might be expected to intervene effectively and safely.
UKHospitality Scotland executive director Willie Macleod described the study as "alarmist and almost wholly inaccurate" and "flawed in the extreme".
He said the report did not accurately represent "even a reasonable proportion of the sector, never mind its entirety", considering industry investment in PPE and other measures was around £900m UK-wide and around £90m in Scotland.
He said: "Published public health data repeatedly shows that hospitality is not where transmission occurs on any significant scale and we refute the suggestion that businesses have broken official guidance. There also is no evidence to support measures such as the curfew, which the report advocates, but other commentators have agreed was counterproductive.
"Hospitality businesses have not been responsible for Covid transmissions in any meaningful way, but they continue to bear the brunt of massively damaging restrictions. They are too often the victims of alarming rhetoric and specious innuendo. Their future, and the livelihoods of their employees, is at risk if they are forced to shoulder any more burdens introduced on the back of misleading and misguided calls for further restrictions."
Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said: "In reality we are talking about just a handful of premises. From those 29 targeted, criticism is levelled at in their own words a ‘substantial minority of observed bars.' You don't need to be a mathematician to work out that basing the closure of a £10.5b industry on this sham of a report would be ludicrous."
Montgomery said the group urged the government last year to make face coverings mandatory and introduce a QR code system, but face coverings were not made mandatory in hospitality until the autumn. And members of the group, which employs more than 6,000 people, have had only 32 positive cases of Covid-19 among staff since July 2020.
He added: "Targeting the few bars and restaurants which are breaking the rules is the proper and proportionate way to proceed, but the vast majority have been adhering religiously to every regulation that has been introduced because we realise the very future of our industry is at stake. Where was this report last autumn when we could have educated the rogue operators on what they were doing wrong and corrected it, rather than releasing it so many months later?"
Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, director of the University of Stirling's Institute for Social Marketing and Health, led the research, which was funded by the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.
Professor Fitzgerald said: "Our findings suggest grounds for uncertainty about the extent to which new rules can be consistently and effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm, and alcohol is routinely consumed.
"Despite the efforts of licensed premises, and detailed guidance from government, potentially significant risks of Covid-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars – especially when customers were intoxicated. Blanket closures, curfews or alcohol sales bans are more likely to be deemed necessary to control virus spread, if such risks cannot be acceptably, quickly and cost-effectively reduced through support and/or sanctions for premises operators.
"Such blanket actions may also have benefits in terms of protecting staff from occupational exposure and reducing pressure on emergency services from alcohol-related injuries or disorder. However, attention also needs to be paid to the impact of closures on businesses, economic activity, employee hardship, and ownership patterns in the sector, as well as any risks posed by diversion of some drinking to the home."