14 Oct 2020
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
When workers from bars and restaurants gathered on Friday evening and dumped surplus ice outside public buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh, they captured the raw anger that the hospitality industry feels towards the new restrictions on their businesses.
The Scottish Government might have hoped that announcing £40 million of additional support funding would smooth severely ruffled feathers but the symbolism of dumping ice on the pavement indirectly communicated that the sum involved would barely cover the losses on the fresh food and beer stocks bought in for that weekend.
On Friday the Scottish Government also announced the Cairngorm funicular railway is to receive £20m for repairs. I have absolutely no issue with repairing the railway and I only mention it to put the £40m into perspective. That may sound a lot of money but stretched across thousands of businesses it will make very little difference.
The anger is magnified by the failure to engage with hospitality businesses that had on the whole followed the guidance and invested in equipment, training and procedures needed to operate safely.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, in her response to last week’s announcement said there was “a complete and utter lack of consultation”. There are thousands of small businesses in the sector whose voice is not being heard when these decisions are being made. The Chancellor’s Friday extension of the job support scheme is also short of what is needed. Once again businesses are being asked to make contributions to their staff pensions and employer’s national insurance contributions without cash coming in to cover them. When will the politicians, and the civil servants that advise them, get the message that businesses – and especially small businesses – do not have limitless reserves? Offering support only for closed businesses and only for the period of lockdown ignores the impact on the supply chain and the time it will inevitably take for customers to regain confidence once they are allowed to reopen. That is why we are so determined to get across to both governments that you cannot simply switch businesses on and off at 48 hours’ notice.
But more fundamentally it would appear neither government’s original economic strategy is working.
The UK Government was generally driving to reopen the economy in time to remove the main business support measures by the end of this month, hence the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. The scale of outbreaks across the North of England and the expanding job support scheme suggest that has failed. The Scottish Government aimed to drive down the case rate more firmly with somewhat tougher restrictions so that we could confidently reopen the economy once that had succeeded. The Scottish case rates announced last week suggest that has not worked either.
We are heading into winter with very limited plans for maintaining the battle against the virus whilst keeping as much of the economy open as possible. We are advised that lifting the local lockdown restrictions for the Central Belt after 16 days cannot be guaranteed.
Leicester went into local lockdown well over 100 days ago. This does not bode well for the success of the current measures. It does not therefore seem unfair for businesses to ask more of the current testing strategy. In Qingdao the whole population is being tested after only a dozen cases were discovered in a local hospital, meaning that nine million people will be tested in a mere five days.
I know it is hard to make comparisons with China but is it now time to explore the role of mass rapid testing much more vigorously?
This article was first published in the Herald Scotland on 14 October 2020.