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Clarity must be given to reopening parameters

By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce 

Whenever Glasgow Chamber makes a case for more financial support for businesses struggling with the impact of lockdown measures, we should remember that more funding is not the first thing our members want.

Recovering the freedom to operate is far more important – not a restricted freedom with social distancing and capacity restrictions but the freedom of normality.

Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, President of the British Chambers of Commerce, reflected this when she argued over the weekend that the time had arrived to rely on the effectiveness of the vaccination programme and continue the reopening plan. “At some point, we need to learn how to operate a fully open economy while still protecting public health. That point is now,” she said.

In contrast, various members of governmental scientific advisory groups are anxious that a third wave stimulated by the Indian or April 02 variant is now underway so that the English June 21 date for the next phase of re-opening is too soon. Until yesterday’s very welcome decision to move Glasgow to Level 2 from the weekend, the city had been kept in Level 3 for an extra three weeks for the same reason.

At every stage hopes for improvement have been dashed by new discoveries in the evolution of the virus. But it would appear most are agreed the vaccines work, especially once the double dose is administered.

It seems important to clarify exactly what the parameters of the argument now are. Are scientists simply calling for a few more weeks to make sure all the most vulnerable have received two injections or is there a subtle change in the framing of risk? Would the scientific community prefer to keep restrictions in place for an unlimited period to control new cases as a protection against the development of new variants?

I ask this because if there is doubt about the reopening programme there appears to be no doubt business financial support structures will continue the winding down that had already started.

The coronavirus job retention scheme becomes progressively more limited from the beginning of July. The repayment of business bounce back loans is already under way. The last of the monthly grants under the strategic framework business fund were paid in March and the one-off restart grants in April.

In Glasgow we have seen the impact of a misalignment between re-opening restrictions and financial support. When the Scottish Government previously announced both Moray and Glasgow were to be held in Level 3 it said an extra weekly grant of up to £750 would be made available, although in these pages last week I explained the majority of businesses were receiving nearer to £500 per week.

Council Leader Susan Aitken confirmed on Friday that a further £769,000 has now been awarded, but if it is to be spread across the 2,000 businesses currently receiving support it is some distance short of what is needed.

While we welcome the small sum of additional money awarded to Glasgow, the economic damage done to businesses really merits a repeat of the restart grants. Glasgow Chamber continues to argue that the restart grants paid in April – up to £7,500 for retail and up to £19,500 for hospitality – are closer to the mark. These grants were intended to help businesses re-open but for many Glasgow companies that money was spent and then wasted when re-opening was postponed. Trying to keep open under Level 3 proved to be very costly.

Businesses asked to understand the need for caution and delay would find this so much easier to accept if the same level of care was invested in appropriate financial support.

This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 2 June 2021

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