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Fri 5th Feb 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Testing the reliability of covid-19 mortality statistics, the shift in city dynamics, pubs need support not a handout, satisfying the ‘low and no’ market 
Authors: Paul Chase, Glynn Davis, Jon Dale, Katy Moses
 

Testing the reliability of covid-19 mortality statistics by Paul Chase

I’ve been researching and writing about alcohol and public health for 15 years and I’ve looked at reams of public health statistics and, while I’m not a professor of statistics or epidemiology, I consider myself a reasonably well-informed layman. And it is, therefore, with some dismay I read some of the nonsense being spouted on social media – about how covid-19 is a hoax, the mortality statistics are nonsense, “it’s all part of a plan” and much more in similar mode. Consider this contribution to our intellectual understanding from a couple of my interlocutors on Twitter:
 
“The covid death figures are a total nonsense and should not be there. News is supposed to be factual, accurate reporting – these numbers are fantasy. Enough already.”
 
And this:
 
“I’m not saying it’s a hoax, but the numbers of reported covid deaths are off and could be way off. The 28 days has changed to 60 days from August last year.”
 
If the capacity for understanding of such people matched their capacity for misunderstanding, they would be candidates for chairman of Mensa. So, where does all this mythology and downright nonsense come from? Some of it stems from ignorance, plain and simple, but much of it is the product of misinformation spread by professional contrarians, doubt archaeologists and other bad faith actors. 
 
I’ve got more reason than most to be sceptical about public health statistics, and if any of you suffer from insomnia, give me a call and I’ll talk you through “alcohol-attributable fractions” in relation to alcohol-related hospital admissions – and I promise you will sink into a deep sleep within five minutes. But there is a line that divides the healthy sceptic from the doubt archaeologist. The healthy sceptic interrogates the numbers while the doubt archaeologist looks for something he can dig up that proves the numbers aren’t 100% accurate and then uses that to imply they must be 100% inaccurate.
 
So, how are the mortality statistics compiled? Covid-19 deaths are reported weekly by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and daily on the gov.uk website for the UK as a whole and the constituent countries individually. The two data sources use different definitions and serve different purposes.
 
The Department of Health and Social Care releases daily updates (on gov.uk) on the number of deaths in the UK and its constituent countries in all settings that occur within 28 days of testing positive for covid-19, based on figures reported by public health agencies up to the previous day. These are deaths in people with covid-19 and not necessarily due to covid-19, although the implication is that the vast majority of them will be. They do not include deaths in people where covid-19 was suspected but a laboratory test was not done or was negative. 
 
Until 12 August, the data for England reported on gov.uk included everyone who died after testing positive for coronavirus, however long after the test they died, whereas the data for the rest of UK included only deaths within 28 days of testing. Concerns that covid-19 deaths in England could be overstated without a cut-off date, as it increased the risk of including people dying from other causes, and the discrepancy with the definition used in the rest of the UK, led the Department of Health and Social Care to ask Public Health England to review its methodology for reporting daily covid-19 deaths in England. Following the review, the definition used for reporting daily covid-19 deaths in England was changed on 12 August to bring it into line with the rest of the UK. 
 
The headline measure now reported on gov.uk for the UK and its constituent countries is defined as the number of deaths that occur within 28 days of a first positive laboratory-confirmed test for covid-19.
 
In addition, a supplementary measure will be the number of deaths that occur within 60 days of a first positive test and deaths that occur after 60 days if covid-19 appears on the death certificate. This measure includes people who suffer a prolonged period of illness from covid-19 before dying, and it will provide a more complete measure of the burden of the disease over time. Both the new measures reduce the cumulative number of covid-19 deaths in England (and correspondingly in the UK) compared with the previous definition.
 
So, when covid-numpties express the view that the mortality statistics are nonsense, a fantasy and so forth, before nodding in agreement I invite you to apply a simple test: in the context of a pandemic that has recently resulted in daily deaths in the UK exceeding a thousand a day of people who tested positive for covid-19 in a laboratory confirmed test, is it more likely than not the vast majority of such deaths were deaths from covid, not just with covid? I think it is. But the doubt archaeologist invites you to believe that a combination of false positives and people who die from some other cause and infection with covid was merely a coincidence renders these mortality statistics unreliable – a fantasy. But they can’t put a figure on what the real number of covid deaths is. They are critics, not authors.
 
However, if the covid deaths begin to plummet because of vaccination, these same merchants of doubt will use the same mortality statistics they have so recently dismissed, to call for the lifting of lockdown restrictions. They can’t have it both ways.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health
 

The shift in city dynamics by Glynn Davis

There was a time when it was possible to secure a table at popular restaurants and bag a seat in the more fashionable bars in London without too much trouble. But, over the years, things became ever more difficult and a night out has required meticulous planning months in advance if you are particularly selective about where you want to spend your time and money. Although the issue has not been quite as acute for inhabitants of other major cities, they have not been immune from suffering similar problems.
 
Transport systems have also creaked at certain peak times and this, again, required some planning ahead and the taking of alternative routes if headaches were to be avoided. What it, ultimately, meant was Friday and Saturday nights in central London became largely limited to special occasions when the requisite preparation and bookings had been made seriously well in advance. 
 
At the heart of the problem was simply the number of people living in and visiting London – for both work and pleasure – and the other major UK cities too. The population in the capital has grown significantly over recent years. When I arrived in about 1990, the population in Greater London was below seven million whereas 30 years later it had reached the nine million mark. This growth has been predicted to continue, according to the Greater London Authority, which is forecasting it will hit the ten million level by 2030.
 
It might have to get its calculator out again because a hole has just been blown into its forecasts, caused by a combination of covid-19 and Brexit. Analysis by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence has found an estimated 1.3 million foreign-born workers have left the UK during covid-19, of which as many as 700,000 were in London. 
 
The ramifications for leisure and hospitality look significant. For starters, almost 160,000 of these people have left or lost jobs in these sectors. When restaurants start to get back on their feet then the employment shortage will present itself as one of the numerous serious issues to overcome. For Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D London, his restaurants will have to operate on the basis of “fewer people and different working practices”.
 
The latter will be a particularly interesting point because the long shadow of covid-19 will, no doubt, affect customer behaviour for some time. They will likely demand greater space because questions will remain over when they will again be comfortable with cheek-by-jowl dining where tables are packed closely together? The economics of cover numbers and table turning will, therefore, need appraising – following those initial trials undertaken during the confusing tier-juggling exercise of last year.
 
There is also the significant issue of major cities simply having fewer people in them for the foreseeable future and the obvious resultant drop-off in demand for foodservice in all its guises. For every foreign-born worker that has left the major cities, there is another British citizen who has jumped ship and moved into a more countrified location. There are also the many younger people who have returned to their families and, on top of this, the work-from-home scenario is an uncertain dynamic that has yet to be played out.
 
With the impending end of the eviction moratorium, sites of all varieties will inevitably become available and for those with the financial firepower there will be opportunities to potentially take much roomier venues, maybe even adding bar areas into restaurants alongside the dining room – just like in the good old days when rentals allowed such largesse.
 
We might be on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime “land grab” in London and the other major cities for those with meat on the bones of their balance sheets. But, along with the favourable real estate market conditions, these bold operators will also have to deal with the fact there will also be fewer people around to service. If I’m one of them, maybe I might just be able to again return to eating and drinking in the more fashionable and popular places in town.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Pubs need support not a handout by Jon Dale

The great British pub has been the cornerstone of our community since medieval days – the social glue that connects everything together. 
 
What makes our local a local is not just the opportunity to eat and drink, meet friends and celebrate a special occasion, watch sport, take part in open mic nights and charity quizzes, or even embark on that nervy first date, it’s also about identity, the fact that the aroma, framed photographs, memorabilia and uneven floor convey stories of the village and its dedicated residents.
 
Our national treasure also remains an economic hub with Pub is the Hub, a not-for-profit organisation that I have worked closely with over recent years, continuing to offer expert advice and support to communities that are looking to relocate, reopen or introduce vital services and activities in their local pub such as post offices, shops, libraries, cafes and even cinemas.
 
This, in turn, provides fantastic job prospects so anyone with the desire and commitment to succeed has that opportunity to progress. My previous employer, Stonegate Group’s award-winning Albert’s Theory of Progression (ATOP) career development programme underpins that “bar to boardroom” ethos.
 
Then, and maybe most importantly, is the role pubs can play in combating loneliness and social isolation. The recently launched “Open Arms” report undertaken by Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read from Loughborough University in partnership with the Campaign to End Loneliness, Heineken and Pub is the Hub, only helps reinforce this point with 64% feeling the pub is one of the main places to socialise in their local area and 86% agreeing that when a pub closes, the local community suffers.
 
The pub is more than just a place to have a pint, a glass of wine and meal, it is the core of the community and should never be seen as the problem but rather part of the solution. Even when pubs were mandated to close last year, publicans refused to be defeated and formulated plans that allowed them to continue serving their local communities. From converting their pubs into shops, to raising money for local charities and even feeding the NHS and school children in the absence of free school meals – no challenge was ever too great.
 
Pubs matter – it is, therefore, incomprehensible the pub was left in the lurch by government last year, and into this year, with totally inadequate support and absurd and unjustifiable restrictions such as the substantial meal and 10pm curfew.
 
The doors are slamming shut on our good times. It has been estimated that, catastrophically, 6,000 licensed premises permanently closed in 2020 due to the pandemic (Source: CGA/AlixPartners) – and I fear things could actually get much worse before they get better. 
 
That is why the chancellor, conspicuous by his absence of late, needs to step up again (next month’s Budget could be too late for some) with something that will allow our pubs, other hospitality venues and brewers to reopen properly along with a stimulus package that helps them to thrive, not just survive, and be there for the people that need them most.
 
The industry doesn’t want handouts, just a helping hand out of this chaos. Keep the VAT relief (at 5%) and include alcohol, keep the business rates relief as well as a beer duty cut and give these businesses support that will drive that economic recovery.
 
We’re even willing to work with government to consider some sensible, evidence-based additions (going to the pub shouldn’t be a sterile experience) rather than the autumn model – but let us open at the same time as non-essential retail, not later, because we have already invested millions in covid-secure measures. 
 
Pubs are the living rooms and hearts of our communities and publicans can’t wait to get back to what they do best of welcoming and looking after people. And while consumer confidence remains fragile, it’s pleasing to see in the latest CGA data there is pent-up consumer demand and, encouragingly, confidence is predicted to outstrip concern once the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated and is expected to build as the vaccination rollout continues. 
 
A quarter (26%) of consumers strongly agree that they “can’t wait to go out again” and more than half of the population are expected to return to a venue in the first few weeks following reopening. Yes, there is no doubt pubs will need to continue to diversify and remain agile to manage labour costs and adhere to guidelines but, whether government likes it or not, our national treasure has and will continue to play an instrumental part in all of our lives. 
 
That’s why it’s incumbent on all of us that own, operate and love pubs to make as much noise as possible and let MPs know the strength of industry feeling as to why pubs must be further supported in next month’s Budget.
Jon Dale is the former director of communications for Stonegate Group, and current chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group Steering Committee and PubAid Steering Group member
 

Satisfying the ‘low and no’ market by Katy Moses

There’s no escaping the fact 2020 was a year like no other. Clearly, such circumstances are going to have a distinct impact on consumer behaviour. Snacking, for example, has increased. Sales of “lounge wear” are through the roof. Many might expect alcohol consumption to have increased significantly but, overall, this isn’t the case. In fact, we’re still seeing similar levels of desire from consumers to reduce the amount of alcohol they consume as we did in 2019, suggesting that despite all that has happened in the past ten months, we are increasingly becoming aware of the need to drink responsibly and that we understand the benefits associated with moderation. This is especially higher for those in the 18 to 34 age bracket.
 
KAM’s “Low + No 2021” research report, carried out in partnership with Peroni Libera 0.0%, suggests 2020 appears to have been the year in which low and no-alcohol beverages have entered the mainstream, from a consumer perspective. Awareness has skyrocketed. Last year, only 66% of UK adults had even heard of non-alcoholic beer for example. This year, the figure is 75%. It’s a similar story across all alcohol categories.
 
With hospitality closed for much of the year, an impressive 43% of UK adults consumed a low or no-alcohol drink at home in 2020, a considerable increase on 2019 (34%). This “at-home” consumption is driven by Generation Z and young Millennials. Many consumers are choosing low or no-alcohol variants “to drink with their evening meal” (22%), “when watching sport on TV” (10%) and even while working from home (5%.)
 
Jez Manterfield from Peroni Libera said in a recent interview: “As consumer behaviour becomes increasingly driven by the mantra of ‘less but better’, it’s clear to see conscious consumption will drive the category, not just in January but all year round. We can expect ‘low and no’ to continue to move into an increasingly diverse array of social occasions, particularly during the warm summer months when consumers typically look to meet with friends and family and enjoy a chilled drink. The opportunity from these shifting consumer trends is huge and those that adapt and innovate accordingly will thrive.” 
 
I couldn’t agree more. But what does this mean for hospitality? 
 
Despite having only a few months to actually visit a pub or restaurant, the research showed one-in-four visits to pubs last year did not involve alcohol, a similar figure to 2019. The figure is one-in-three for restaurants. Do we put enough of our energy into our alcohol-free offer? The fact that 22% of those who come to a venue not wanting alcohol will typically default to “tap water” suggests not. 22%! 
 
I’m not just referring to getting a great “low and no” range here. We need to think bigger – how are your hot drinks? How are your alcohol-free cocktails and fresh juices? Which “adult soft drinks” do you have available and visible, and served with as much focus and flair as we give alcohol? Only 37% of customers rated the current range of “low and no” options in pubs as “good or very good”. The figure was 39% for restaurants. Both figures are down on the previous year.
 
Rebuilding hospitality is going to be a long hard fight. Venues will have to diversify to survive (many already have). We’ll need to open our eyes to new customer occasions, give customers new reasons to visit and embrace new dayparts – some of which will contain even fewer alcohol drinkers. Hot drinks, for example, will be critical for remote workers. Quality juices, served beautifully, of course, are essential to a decent breakfast and brunch offer. 
 
We’re going to have to work hard to attract many customers back and just because someone isn’t drinking alcohol it doesn’t mean we can afford to give them any less of an absolutely outstanding experience. We simply can’t risk not delivering on expectations on a potential one-in-four visits. The industry needs to make every single visit – every single experience – count.
Katy Moses is managing director of KAM Media
KAM Media is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

 
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