Airbnb hosts across Scotland are facing police and council action for welcoming guests despite a government ban aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19.
The Ferret asked dozens of hosts if they were still accepting guests. Seven properties in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and near Loch Lomond invited us to book in defiance of UK and Scottish governments saying accommodation providers should shut.
In response to our findings the Scottish Government said lawbreakers can be fined up to £10,000 by police and closed down. The City of Edinburgh Council and Highland Council said they were working with police to enforce the new laws.
Edinburgh Green Party’s housing spokesperson, councillor Chas Booth, said that these landlords were “totally irresponsible” and “flouting a law designed to protect the health of all of us”.
The UK government’s new coronavirus law says: “A person who is responsible for carrying on a business consisting of the provision of holiday accommodation, whether in a hotel, hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation, holiday apartment, home, cottage or bungalow, campsite, caravan park or boarding house, must cease to carry on that business during the emergency period.”
There are exceptions if the business is housing the homeless or hosting blood donation sessions. There are also exceptions for hosting someone who uses the accommodation as their main home or can’t return to their main home, or needs accommodation while moving house or attending a funeral.
On 25 and 26 March The Ferret asked Airbnb hosts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Skye, Mull and Shetland if they were still accepting bookings.
Of the 29 hosts who replied, 22 said no, mostly because of the coronavirus restrictions. But seven invited The Ferret to book, including four in Edinburgh and one each in Glasgow, Inverness and near Loch Lomond.
Three of the hosts in Edinburgh all replied immediately with an identical message which appeared to be automatically-generated. “Although the room is still available at this time, I may have received requests for those dates. It is a busy season and I would advise you to book quickly,” the message said.
The hosts then added an individual message. “I am at the moment,” said one. “Yes I am,” said another, while the third simply pre-approved the booking.
These three hosts manage 12 Edinburgh properties between them. Two of their profiles say they are students or recent graduates. Many Airbnb properties are managed by agents who earn a cut of the property owner’s revenue.
Airbnb does not give exact addresses until guests book but these hosts’ properties were centred on York Place, just to the east of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Another Airbnb host manages a property in the Loch Lomond area which charges £100 to rent for one night. When the host was asked if they were taking bookings, they said: “I am but I’m not sure about restrictions. I think if you have a good reason to stay if stopped it’s ok to stay. It’s all self check-in here so I’m happy to host.”
The Ferret replied: “I don’t fall into any of the exemptions from the government’s ban on accommodation. Would you still be happy for me to stay?” The host said: “Yes I would be. Tonight?”
A host in the Plantation area of Glasgow said The Ferret was welcome to stay in a private room in the flat where he lives in Glasgow. He later withdrew the invitation, saying someone else had booked that night.
A host in Inverness said he was not allowing guests to stay in his spare bedroom but was hosting people in an apartment in the Culduthel area of the city which costs £112 a night.
Many others said they were not accepting guests including hosts in Skye, Mull and Shetland.
One host in Kyle of Lochalsh said: “It depends on your reason for travel. Not if it’s a pleasure trip as that is now banned and the locals are very agitated about people coming into the area who don’t need to be here. And everything is closed.
“Best to stay put wherever you are till this thing blows over.”
Airbnb hosts ‘should know the rules’
Edinburgh councillor, Chas Booth, said some Airbnb hosts “seem to be flouting a law designed to protect the health of all of us during this current worrying pandemic.”
He added: “This is totally irresponsible behaviour from the landlords concerned. Ignorance of the law is no excuse – they should know the rules.”
Green MSP for Lothian, Andy Wightman, said the new law was clear that short-term lets must cease business with certain exemptions. “I’d be interested in what exemptions are being cited,” he said.
“In my view it would be inappropriate for any short-term let operating in a shared stair to be open given the health risks posed to other residents. Given that some operators appear to be flouting the law, I will be reporting any breaches reported to me by constituents to the police.”
A spokesperson for City of Edinburgh Council said that, as the new regulations had only just come out, the council needed to agree on an approach with the police.
Edinburgh council leader, SNP councillor Adam McVey, added: “Businesses, including short-term lets, need to check the latest national guidance to see if they should still be open. Notwithstanding the issue of having permission to operate, bookings should only be taken for people facing exceptional circumstances – not for holidays.
“To keep operating, if against national guidance, is not only irresponsible, it could be dangerous. It’s so important that we all stick to the guidelines to protect ourselves and others.”
The Edinburgh Evening News reported on 27 March that hundreds of Airbnb properties in the city were still shown as available online, but the newspaper didn’t request bookings.
Highland Council stated that it now had powers to close businesses subject to Covid-19 restrictions. “For clarity, included in the list of premises that are restricted is holiday accommodation such as Airbnb,” said a council spokesperson.
“Highland Council’s environmental health and trading standards teams are working closely with the police and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure an effective and consistent delivery of the regulations. We shall be engaging with and supporting local businesses, however where it is established that a business is operating contrary to national Covid-19 guidelines then officers will look to take appropriate enforcement action.”
The spokesperson advised anyone unsure of the new rules to refer to Scottish government advice and urged anyone with concerns about businesses operating when they should not be to contact Highland Council’s environmental health team.
A spokesperson for Stirling Council, which includes Loch Lomond, said their enforcement team were looking into The Ferret’s findings. Glasgow City Council said they were looking into the issue.
The Scottish Government’s position is that local authorities will monitor compliance with the new legislation with support from the police, if required.
Law-breakers can be punished with prohibition notices, fixed penalty notices and fines of up to £10,000. Repeat offenders could be forced to close down.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Everyone is being told to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel. Businesses or individuals that fail to comply with this, are putting others at risk. Any business or venue operating in contravention with these measures are committing an offence.”
Police Scotland said they would support local authorities “as appropriate”.
Airbnb declined to comment and, at time of publication, the listings remained active.
Photo thanks to iStock/Wachiwit. This story was amended at 13.54 on 1 April 2020 to remove a reference to key workers as an exception for accommodation providers following advice from the Scottish Government.