Hotel boss says 'common sense has to prevail' over plans to reopen tourism and hospitality
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A CAITHNESS hotel owner has described plans to reopen the hospitality industry as good news – but stressed that "common sense has to prevail" to ensure coronavirus does not spread.
Andrew Mackay, who has hotels in Wick, Thurso and Castletown, welcomed the announcement made this week by Scotland's tourism secretary Fergus Ewing who said it is hoped the industry can resume on July 15 as restrictions are eased following the lockdown.
Mr Mackay said: "It is good news that we have an actual date to aim for, so long as it is safe for customers and staff and we are not putting them at risk."
He says he wants a balance between getting the economy operational again and ensuring the virus, which has caused more than 400,000 deaths worldwide, does not spread.
Mr Mackay said reopening in July would help save the season and jobs but would focus only on the domestic market.
"We would have no international visitors and that is right," he said. "From a business perspective the sooner we can open the better, but it has to be safe to do so. We don't want to put lives at risk."
Mr Mackay stressed there would have to be plans in place and strict guidelines to ensure the virus is not spread by people coming to the north of Scotland from other parts of the UK. "Common sense has to prevail. We cannot jeopardise the the health and welfare of the community," he said.
Trudy Morris, the chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, also backed the Scottish Government's proposal.
She said: "This will be welcome news for many in the north Highlands who are reliant on the tourism and hospitality industries for their livelihoods.
"This pandemic has already hit the sector hard and significant challenges remain, particularly with the ongoing quarantine on international arrivals and loss of the international tourist market.
"We understand that these measures remain necessary for public health, but they underline that this does not mark a 'return to normal' for the sector, and that ongoing government support will be required to ensure its survival.
"This represents a clear step in the phased reset and recovery of the Scottish economy, and it is important it is not undertaken in isolation. The wider economic needs of the area must also be considered, and appropriate Scottish Government support and investment delivered to enable this."
David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, the business organisation behind the North Coast 500, said: "Given this reopening date, we believe it is now essential the Scottish Government adopts more nuanced messaging to ease anxieties across the country, especially in the Highlands.
"We also urgently need to review the appropriateness of the two-metre social distancing guidelines in hospitality settings. For many businesses it will not be possible to reopen if it is not reduced.
"We need to look at what other countries have done with social distancing by reducing it from two metres to one metre. It’s the only way that many tourism and hospitality businesses will be viable."
Mr Ewing said the July 15 date cannot be definitive and is conditional on public health advice about the virus.
He pointed out that a new Scottish Recovery Tourism Taskforce will help the sector. It will look at recovery needs as well as actions being taken by the UK government and the development of a new domestic visitor marketing campaign.
Mr Ewing also said there is a £2.3 billion package of support for businesses across Scotland which includes measures specific to the tourism and hospitality industry.
Local MP Jamie Stone gave the plan a cautious welcome. He said: "Our tourism and hospitality businesses have endured a huge amount during the pandemic. Now more than ever both UK and Scottish governments should be ready to offer a financial helping hand to get them back on their feet and ready for July 15.
"I look forward to the Scottish Government's guidance, which Fergus Ewing promises to publish on June 18. It is important that businesses are given as much time as possible to prepare."
Following Mr Ewing's announcement, Mr Stone asked in the Commons if the UK government would find time to discuss how it could "safely look after tourism for the next 12 months... in a manner that will not risk the spread of the virus".
In response the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, maintained that the UK government had done enough to support the industry. "The government has taken huge steps for the economic revival of the country with the furlough scheme and with the schemes to help small businesses access loans from the banks," he said.
Mr Rees-Mogg did not answer Mr Stone's request for a debate on the issue, instead insisting that the priority should be to "help people get the confidence once again to travel".
Speaking after the exchange, Mr Stone said: "Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks the government has done enough to support our tourism industry. I beg to differ.
"I pressed him on about the need for a 12-month support package for the tourism and hospitality industry, which would help counteract the losses it has endured due to lockdown. He ignored this point.
"I pressed him on the importance of that industry on youth unemployment – a point he also ignored.
"I pressed him on the need to support our local businesses in that industry in how they can open safely, without risking a resurgence in the virus. He ignored that as well.
"Instead, Mr Rees-Mogg seemed hellbent on praising the government's support of the industry through the Chancellor's furlough scheme, but the reality is that the industry has not had any specialised support.
"I have no choice now but to organise a cross-party campaign demanding that the government helps the tourism industry. Their indecision and neglect is hurting hard-working people from the far north to the tip of Cornwall. I will continue to raise this issue, regardless of how inconvenient or irritating it might be to ministers."