19 Jan 2022
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
When Professor Jason Leitch warned last week that there will be further Coronavirus variants and the next one could be much more severe than Omicron, one Glasgow Chamber member in the hospitality industry could hardly contain his anger. Recovery for his business depends on a sustained relaxation of existing restrictions and the return of consumer confidence in all those life affirming activities that involve gathering together – the very opposite of social distancing. Simply floating the possibility that a new – as yet undiscovered – variant could be damaging is the exact opposite of what he needs.
At least when the World Health Organisation’s special envoy for Covid-19 David Nabarro said broadly the same thing on Monday, he did add that ‘looking at it from a UK point of view there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel’. The UK may be amongst the first countries where the pandemic becomes endemic and we learn to live with the virus without any form of lockdown restriction. The progress in distributing effective vaccinations is paying off and perhaps now is the time, with half the winter now passed, that we exploit our collective achievement.
No doubt the public health experts must err on the side of caution in their advice, especially when there are unusual pressures on the NHS, but there must equally be a point when that natural, understandable pessimism is taken into account when politicians make their decisions or, to use stock market terminology, discounted. That does not mean it is ignored; just that there has to be some genuinely new and compelling evidence before it has additional impact.
The Omicron variant has turned out to be milder than even the most optimistic SAGE scenarios suggested. It is perhaps irritating to the public health advisers that businesses in the most affected sectors are now regularly pointing that out and also looking back to the summer when restrictions were lifted without the negative consequences those advisers had predicted. But for so many business owners this has been two years of financial and mental torture and they are justified in asking for the public health advice to take a less senior role in the Scottish Government’s four harms assessment.
In the absence of new public health evidence the remaining three harms - wider health, social and economic - must surely grow in significance. Just as one example of the continuing economic harm, in December the footfall in Glasgow city centre’s prime shopping streets was two million less than it had been two years ago; a drop of just over 37%. That has translated into at least the same drop in turnover for city centre businesses in hospitality, retail, tourism and culture.
Nor has the Scottish Government’s financial assistance, welcome though it most certainly is, come even close to bridging the gap so many businesses have faced for a second Christmas running. One entertainment business I spoke to had lost over £2million in turnover over the Christmas period and would be lucky to secure grant support in the low tens of thousands. Another tourism business will not receive any support at all because the government’s eligibility criteria strangely exclude it from applying.
As the Omicron wave recedes, the threshold of proof for applying measures including social distancing, working from home, international travel constraints and vaccine passports must surely become markedly higher. None of these measures is costless. The Scottish Government is gradually lifting its restrictions but in creating its fresh strategic framework it would be helpful if it took to heart the principle that no restriction will be applied a day longer than is necessary.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 19 January 2022