Pubs create the “perfect storm” for spreading coronavirus and carry more risk than planes, according to academics.


Punters drinking together in an indoor pub are potentially subjecting themselves to a build-up of infected droplets caused by poor ventilation and people having continuous conversations, often speaking more loudly to be heard over the din of a noisy bar, the experts warn.

The comments come after households mixing in pubs and homes was blamed for a rise in COVID-19 cases in Preston, resulting in it being the latest area to have lockdown restrictions reimposed.

Aberdeen was also placed in a fresh lockdown after an outbreak of cases linked to a number of bars emerged.

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Dr Julian W Tang, honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said if you can smell garlic on someone’s breath it means you are close enough to be inhaling their air.

“If the air space is poorly ventilated, that air that’s full of virus is not going to go anywhere. It’s going to linger there until the virus dries up and dies over time,” he told the PA news agency, adding that the most common method of transmission in the UK is probably “conversational exposure”.

He pointed out that when people laugh they produce a lot of air, so if someone in a group in the pub makes a joke then they are massively exposed to exhaled air from the laughter around them.

Beer ‘tastes better’ with music © iStock
Talking louder in noisy pubs increases the distance infected droplets can travel © iStock

Asked if being in a busy pub is quite similar to being on a plane in terms of risk, Dr Tang said: “It’s even worse because the aeroplane has very good ventilation. The pubs don’t have very good ventilation.”

He said the ventilation system on a plane filters viruses out of the air, adding: “I think a plane is safer because of that ventilation system efficiency.”

Dr Tang said the general public do not realise just how good the ventilation is on planes, adding: “A lot of the fear is due to ignorance.

“To be honest, on a plane the danger is from your nearest neighbours because that air is not filtered away quickly enough before you inhale it. That’s the main risk on a plane.”

He said: “I don’t see planes as a major risk. If you ask me would I rather fly on a plane or go to a pub, I’d rather fly on a plane.”

Dr Tang added: “In a pub you go there to talk, you go there to do exactly what you need to do to transmit the virus to each other.”

Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, pointed out that even after one or two drinks people will drop their guard and are likely to be less cautious.

He told PA: “What do you do in the pub? Well, you drink, and you have a conversation.”

“But several conversations in a confined space equals incrementally raising your voice to be heard,” he said, adding that talking in a slightly louder voice results in the release of more droplets which may be carrying infection and may be propelled further.

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“So more droplets equals more chance of picking up one droplet that eventually infects the other person.

“It is a perfect storm aided and abetted by alcohol the enabler.”

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He added: “With a silent enemy, the coronavirus coming out of droplets, you are blissfully unaware that it is happening, until a week later you have signs and symptoms of illness.”

Dr Pankhania said he would personally avoid going on a plane during a pandemic but thinks planes carry less risk than pubs, explaining: “In the pub there is a free for all after a few drinks, whereas in the aeroplane it is a managed environment.”

He pointed out that on a plane journey people will be taking precautions such as wearing masks and there will be less conversation.

“When people are boarding an aeroplane they are so conscious of a potential risk that they are in prevention mode and in hyper prevention mode.

“When you are in a pub your inhibitions, by design, are reduced and removed, and you are never in a prevention mode,” he said.

Dr Pankhania pointed out that pubs attract sociable people who are likely to have met up with many other people.

“So they are meeting a lot of people as well as meeting you in the pub. You might be meeting them only, but you don’t know how many they have met,” he said.

He added that even people who go to the pub alone for a quiet drink are at risk as they are putting themselves into an environment where the virus could be in free circulation.


Dr Pankhania also commented on restaurants, saying: “I personally think going into a restaurant indoors where there are lots of tables etc in a confined space, without any new attention to increased ventilation, I would say it’s best you avoid it."

Q&A: How can I protect myself from the coronavirus when shopping?

You’ll have seen signs in your local supermarket advising you to keep two metres from others while moving around the store. This is key to reducing your chances of catching the virus while shopping.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we cough, sneeze, or sometimes even talk. The droplets sprayed out by an infected person will contain the virus, which could then enter your body via your mouth, nose or eyes (this is why you shouldn’t be touching your face).

Respiratory droplets don’t usually travel more than one metre, so by keeping two metres from others, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being in the firing line. To make it easier to keep your distance, try to shop during off-peak hours, choose a store that’s limiting the number of people who can be inside at any one time, and use self-checkout if you can.

Keeping your hands clean is the other main thing you can do. If possible, wipe the trolley or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe when you arrive at the store. When you get home, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before and after unpacking your bags.

A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, so wiping down your purchases with a disinfectant spray or a soapy cloth before you put them away is another good habit to get into.

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Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.