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Phased reopening announcement 'not what businesses in visitor economy wished to hear'

By Alan Hendry

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David Richardson said small businesses would find the lack of a firm timetable 'immensely frustrating'.
David Richardson said small businesses would find the lack of a firm timetable 'immensely frustrating'.

Nicola Sturgeon's announcement today of a gradual easing of Covid-19 restrictions was “definitely not what businesses in the visitor economy wished to hear”, it has been claimed.

The First Minister outlined a "phased but significant reopening” which could see hospitality and non-essential retail restarting from the last week in April.

David Richardson, Highlands and Islands development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), warned that tourism-related businesses could find they are able to open yet their key customer bases will not be able to travel.

"While the country has reached an important milestone on the road to recovery, we know that small businesses will find the lack of a firm timetable immensely frustrating,” Mr Richardson said. “And while we do have some indicative ‘earliest dates’, the three-week gaps between them are lengthy.

“Another six weeks of mainland stay-at-home lockdown certainly won’t ease the mounting pressures facing businesses, but it’s worse than that, for the news from the First Minister today was definitely not what countless Caithness and Sutherland businesses involved in our vitally important visitor economy wished to hear.

“While the move back into the levels system, hopefully no later than the last week of April, will be well received by many Scottish businesses, it will not mean that the all-important customers of our tourism and hospitality business – from the central belt and England – will be able to return immediately, and certainly not those from overseas.

"History will repeat itself – just as happened before Christmas, Highland businesses will be able to open but their key customer bases will not be able to travel to use their services. And will there be any financial support for them if they are forced to close as a result?”

He added: “FSB Scotland is calling on the Scottish Government for three things.

“First, we want more detail about the types of economic activity that can be resumed under the different levels so that businesses can begin to plan. Second, as the vaccine is rolled out, we want the Scottish Government to continually review whether its recovery road map timetable can be accelerated, travel restrictions lifted, and restrictions on local economies eased. And third, we want grants to be made available to prevent businesses that have made it thus far through the pandemic from going under.

"We don’t want to see precious businesses falling at the final hurdle.”

The trade group for pubs and hospitality businesses, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), said a late spring reopening “will sadly be too late for many, and for those who do survive there remain serious challenges ahead”.

SLTA spokesman Paul Waterson said: “Brighter days lie ahead – there’s no doubt about that. However, pubs, bars and restaurants have been unable to open since before Christmas – under significant Covid constraints – and large swathes of 2020 were lost to lockdown closures or severely limited trading conditions.

“While it is encouraging that our sector can hopefully reopen from the end of April, we are concerned that a return to the previous tiered system will lead many operators to decide that such restrictive reopening conditions are simply not worth the time, effort and money involved.

“Hospitality is not a ‘one size fits all’ sector, given the breadth of premises that operate within it – pubs, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and so on – and depends on events and functions to survive.

“Of course, we welcome today’s news that the Scottish Government is committed to continuing financial support for those firms suffering as a result of the pandemic, and we also welcome the First Minister’s announcement that she is considering support for businesses facing trading restrictions after they are allowed to reopen.

“However, our response is one of disappointment for the licensed hospitality industry which has been among the hardest hit by trading restrictions throughout the pandemic, an industry that invested an estimated £80 million on becoming Covid-compliant.

“For us, it is now a case of waiting to hear what the First Minister puts on the table in her next announcement in three weeks’ time – until then, we will work with her officials to help the Scottish Government make the best decisions for our industry.”

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