Dozens of pubs ordered to close by Aberdeenshire Council because of the government’s levels system could still be trading if they were in neighbouring Aberdeen, it has emerged.
Outraged north-east hospitality bosses have hit out at the discrepancy, caused by the city council choosing a different interpretation of the rules while wrangling with ministers.
And the city local authority has dismissed concerns the variance could lead to pub bosses missing out on vital relief funding.
The latest coronavirus law which came into force the start of the month, as the five-level system was brought in, made it a legal requirement for drinks-only establishments in both council areas to shut indoor and outdoor premises.
Only venues able to offer a main meal – even though customers can choose to sit outside and have only a drink legally – are allowed to remain open.
There are five local authorities at level 2, with Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and Scottish Borders all enforcing the mandatory closure of so-called ‘wet pubs’ – along with Aberdeenshire’s forced closure of 44.
It is understood only a handful of Aberdeen’s beer gardens and drinking areas would be affected by the legislation, as others have started offering food to avoid closure.
And the unilateral decision not to shut them down could yet hit the pockets of business owners, as qualification for a new pot of relief cash is tied to the impact of temporary closure.
It is understood the Scottish Government believes pubs remaining open would mean they are entitled to less money from an emergency pot to help firms through the continued restrictions.
But a spokesman for Aberdeen City Council spokesman said in response: “Under Scottish Government guidelines, pubs serving alcohol without a meal are still eligible for the business restriction fund in level 2.
“Under government terms of conditions, we cannot comment on the awarding of financial support to individual businesses.
“In general terms, support is conditional on compliance with the Covid-19 regulations.
“Breaching the regulations would affect the eligibility of a business to apply for funding support.”
“Current legislation for level 2 areas requires the closure of a ‘drinks-only public house business’ which does not have available on its premises facilities for the preparation and service of a main midday or evening meal or equivalent.
“Our Environmental Health team has approached the Scottish Government for further advice on the circumstances where a drinks-only public house with appropriate outdoor facilities has effective Covid-19 controls in place.
“While further advice is awaited, such premises are not being required to close at this stage, where there is no related public health risk.”
It is understood some of the legal wrangling centres on the government’s definition of “facilities” which can be used to prepare a main meal.
The outcome of the argument could depend on whether a microwaved ready meal is considered a hearty enough dish.
But Scottish Government sources yesterday confirmed the legal requirements had been reiterated to the Granite City authority, with a spokesman adding: “Under current guidelines wet pubs are closed by law.
“As we have done throughout this unprecedented crisis, we have listened closely to businesses and, as wet pubs, which are unable to offer a main meal service, would be unviable with drinks sales alone, we decided, in consultation with the industry, to close them by law, to enable them to access the most appropriate level of support.”
Having been asked specifically about the law outlining the closures, city council co-leader Douglas Lumsden said: “It is clear that tier 2 allows outdoor drinking without having a meal.
“Our Environmental Health team is in contact with the Scottish Government seeking clarity on the situation.”
Aberdeenshire councillor Paul Johnston, who also owns The Craft bar in Pitmedden, accused Aberdeen Council of being “out on a limb” in their interpretation of the law, contrary to the other level 2 authorities.
Mr Johnston said: “There should be no discrepancy – it does not serve their public, or our public, well.
“It will be seen as being unfair, illogical and it brings everybody in the trade, and indeed the councils, into disrepute.”
“I think all the bars want is consistency.
“Of course they want to be open, and of course they want a level playing field with establishments that can sell a meal and then allow people to sit outside drinking without food for a considerable time afterwards, as is allowed under level two.
“If the government wants to cut down on Covid-19 and thinks that wet-led pubs are the big risk, then rules should be equally applied in the city as they are in the other tier 2 authorities, including Aberdeenshire.”
Outgoing Aberdeenshire Council leader Jim Gifford would not comment on Aberdeen’s stance but said “everything we all do has to be done in a way that doesn’t confuse people”.
“Councils all know the rules and regulations and we expect everyone to follow them but we are doing what we have to do and others can interpret things as they see fit,” he added.
A pub landlord in the north of Aberdeenshire was far more critical – hitting out at his council for shutting him down while similar businesses in the city can still trade.
Fearing repercussions from the licensing authority, he did not want to be named but came forward to air frustrations at inequality.
The man told The P&J: “The silly thing you can have two pubs next door to each other – one doing food and one not and both with beer gardens – and one has to close and the other doesn’t.
“The council said the regulations allow someone who sells food to also serve drink in their outside area, without food.
“If they can, why can’t I?
“This can be interpreted anyway they want and it’s no clearer from looking at the government’s hospitality question and answer site.
“They want us to abide by the rules – which I’m happy to do – but it should be a fair and level playing field for everyone.
“It’s galling, I even contacted Aberdeen City Council and they told me ‘food and non-food pubs are permitted to serve alcohol in outside licensed areas’.
“How can two councils in the north-east have different sets of regulations – surely it has to be the same.
“There has to one of them right and someone who is wrong.
“We have been allowed to spend money – which most of us can ill afford – to set up beer gardens, assuming we were going to be allowed to use them.”