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Don't treat us like the rest of Scotland, hospitality businesses in Caithness plead

By Alan Hendry

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Mervyn Hill serving drinks yesterday in the Nethercliffe's garden area to customers William and Adelaine Munro, who said they were happy to be supporting the hotel. Picture: Alan Hendry
Mervyn Hill serving drinks yesterday in the Nethercliffe's garden area to customers William and Adelaine Munro, who said they were happy to be supporting the hotel. Picture: Alan Hendry

Pubs and restaurants in Caithness are being put in jeopardy because of skyrocketing coronavirus figures in the central belt.

That was the view from many local hospitality businesses after learning of new restrictions facing the whole country which were announced by the First Minister in parliament on Wednesday.

Nicola Sturgeon has banned the sale of alcohol indoors and told pubs and restaurants that they can only open indoors between 6am and 6pm, with alcohol sales being allowed outside only, up until 10pm.

The new rules, which aim to reduce the spread of Covid-19, come into effect at 6pm today and will last for 16 days until October 25 – at the end of the October school holidays.

But hotel and bar owners in Caithness told the John O'Groat Journal that they were being swept up in a nationwide approach when the area was not suffering as badly as most other places.

Stan Egan, the owner of the Station Hotel in Thurso, felt the hospitality industry was being hit again just as it was getting back on its feet.

He said: "I feel we are being penalised in the north of Scotland where we have no major issues. We have been hit with all sorts of things from social distancing to restricting numbers in the premises, and now we have these latest measures.

"We have people staying at the hotel but they can't have a drink with their meal. It is utterly ridiculous.

"We are being hit just as we were trying to get back on our feet. I think this will have a big impact."

Mervyn Hill and his wife Helen, who run the Nethercliffe Hotel in Wick, accepted that it was important to do something to stem the rising trend of coronavirus in Scotland.

But Mervyn said: “I do sometimes wonder why hospitality is being hit the whole time.

“You can understand that's where people go to meet, but we are trying to make it as safe as possible. You can see what's happening in other countries now, and you don't know what is going to happen next.

Mervyn Hill at the Nethercliffe Hotel in Wick yesterday.Picture: Alan Hendry
Mervyn Hill at the Nethercliffe Hotel in Wick yesterday.Picture: Alan Hendry

“These measures are in for a fortnight. We won't be shutting. We've got guests staying, and there will be meals with juices inside, or if people can manage to sit outside for a drink. We just have to weather the storm and carry on.”

Helen Hill added: “Supermarkets do not have a limit on when they can sell alcohol, and people will just be going in there wholesale and going back to their houses. The danger for me is that this will now become the norm and people will not come back to pubs.

"Pub culture was probably dying a death anyway with folk drinking in the house, but this could send it further down that track."

She added: “In the great scheme of things, we are fortunate that we have a good outside area and we can implement heat sources.

“It is very simple for us to adapt – it's mighty inconvenient, but we can still operate the outside service because we have the area already. That is the only plus side that I can find for us just now."

Martin Nicolson, owner of the Northern Sands Hotel at Dunnet, said the hotel would be able to provide an outdoor service at its marquee, installed earlier this year at a cost of around £100,000 to create a food and drink area during the pandemic.

“We have to open the side of the marquee to class it as outdoors – 50 per cent of the side has to be opened. This time of year is not the best for that,” Mr Nicolson said.

He went on: “We want to do the best we can to protect everybody – that’s the bottom line.

“But there are two ways to protect folk – you’ve got to protect folk for their jobs as well as protect them for their health, and it’s a very hard balancing act.

Martin Nicolson feels hospitality is an easy target.
Martin Nicolson feels hospitality is an easy target.

“I do feel that hospitality is an easy target. I feel it’s all coming from the central belt area whereas up here in the north we’ve been relatively lucky and I don’t believe that we’ve been separated from the rest – we’re just included in the R-number for the whole of Scotland.

"I think there should have been more of a regional split.”

Andrew Mowat, proprietor of the Seaview Hotel at John O’Groats, said: “Nobody is going to sit outside unless it’s an exceptionally nice day, but it’s very unlikely we’re going to get many of them in October.

"It’s only two weeks, so hopefully it passes and we get back to a bit of normality.

“But the problems are not coming from hospitality places like this. We’re adhering to the law and we’re being penalised more for it, really.

“There is mention of a financial package to help but we don’t know what shape or form that’s going to take yet. The government will need to be giving something. There’s a lot of places that are reliant on being able to sell alcohol.”

Ellie Lamont, of Mackays Hotel in Wick, said: "I’m not sure why the hospitality industry is paying the price for those who aren’t following the rules – is there evidence that people going out for a leisurely meal are more vulnerable or are causing a spread?

"None of our diners or residents breach any of our guidelines while in our hotel. Only time will tell what effect this will have on the businesses."

Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, believes that the new measures are not part of a considered strategy.

"I am increasingly concerned that the policy from both London and Edinburgh is increasingly reactive – almost back of the fag packet stuff," he said.

"What we desperately need is a strategy that is properly explained to people. If this doesn't happen – and we are seeing this already – public confidence in government to guide us through and defeat the virus is eroded."

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “Jobs and businesses need to be protected and the Scottish Government needs to make sure that businesses on the edge are not forced over that edge.

“It seems incredibly unfair that hospitality businesses have invested in making changes to their establishments to fulfil the guidelines which are now rendered useless by these new regulations."

The First Minister said that action was needed now to prevent a return to the peak level of infections experienced in spring.

Ms Sturgeon said: “While the measures will feel like a backward step, they are in the interests of protecting our progress overall. It is by taking the tough but necessary action now that we hope to avoid even tougher action in future.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the moves were necessary.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the moves were necessary.

The Scottish Government said new restrictions were also backed by a new £40 million support fund for businesses, with tighter restrictions across the central belt areas where the infection rate is highest.

The new nationwide measures affecting Caithness are:

  • Hospitality (food and drink): all premises may only open indoors between 6am and 6pm, with no sales of alcohol
  • Hospitality (food and drink): premises may open outdoors until 10pm, with sales of alcohol (where licensed)
  • Takeaways (including from pubs and restaurants) can continue
  • Evening meals may be served in accommodation for residents only but no alcohol can be served
  • Current meeting rules, maximum of six people from two households, continue to apply
  • Specific life events, such as weddings and funerals, may continue with alcohol being served, with current meeting rules for these events (20-person limit in regulated premises only)

Shops across Scotland are also being asked to return to two metres physical distancing and to reintroduce the mitigations they put in place earlier in the pandemic, including one-way systems.

In the central belt health board areas of Ayrshire & Arran; Forth Valley; Greater Glasgow & Clyde; Lanarkshire; and Lothian, all licensed premises must close for the 16-day period, with the exception of takeaway services.

The knock-on effects of the latest restrictions will damage a wide range of businesses in the county, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.

David Richardson of the Federation of Small Businesses.
David Richardson of the Federation of Small Businesses.

David Richardson, the FSB's Highlands & Islands development manager, said: “Hospitality businesses in Caithness will be horrified at the First Minister’s announcement. With some three months’ trading under their belts since unlocking, squeezing every last penny out of the season has been of paramount importance to their long-term viability, and now they are seeing what for many will be the premature ending of the 2020 tourist season.

“Not only will these additional restrictions pile even more pressure on hospitality businesses at an extremely delicate time, they will have a significant knock-on effect on our tourism sector as a whole, the hospitality supply chain, and on night-time economy operators like taxi drivers and takeaways.
"How many businesses will be forced to close as a result?"

Mr Richardson also said the £40 million package of support must reach affected businesses quickly.

“The £40 million support fund is very welcome, but will it be enough? Owners must now take major and very urgent decisions about their businesses’ futures, and they need to know where they stand before doing so.

"FSB Scotland will work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that individual schemes are devised as quickly as possible, and that the money reaches those businesses in greatest need – including those indirectly affected by the changes – in the shortest possible time.”

Highland Council welcomed the fact that hospitality had not been forced to close entirely, as it had in the central belt.

"This will, however, be difficult for the hospitality industry and we have yet to see the detail of support to be provided to businesses in the Highlands,” said council leader Margaret Davidson.

Depute leader of the council and recovery board chair Cllr Alasdair Christie added: “We recognise the extremely difficult task of balancing the ongoing Covid-19 response to protect lives while also protecting the country’s economy and wellbeing.

"As we approach the school October holidays – we welcome the efforts being made to try to ensure that schools, colleges and universities and places or learning can remain open after the holidays. Their continued functioning is vital to enabling parents and carers to be able to work while delivering our young peoples’ education.

“We urge everyone to follows the new rules and to continue to take the other basic steps that will protect you and each other."

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