Hospitality is ready – the Scottish Government should be too

Stephen Montgomery

It’s impossible for me to get overly excited about the partial and gradual reopening of the hospitality sector when the industry that I have worked in for over a decade continues to be unfairly targeted by the Scottish Government. Although a path towards normality appears to be taking shape, arbitrary curfews and an illogical stance on alcohol continue this unjustified attack on the industry. The sector was among the first to close, a year ago this weekend, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and now we’re expected to be some of the last to reopen completely.

The Fraser of Allander Institute released their quarterly economic commentary this month, which outlines the disproportionate impact of lockdowns on the hospitality sector. Since June 2020, the share of operating accommodation and food services businesses reporting lower turnovers than usual was around 60% and peaked in August and November last year above 90%.

This trend isn’t reversing – more than 70% of businesses in the sector reported lower turnover than usual in the early months of 2021. Comparing this number to the current cross-industry average of 45% shows how the hospitality sector has been disproportionately affected as a result of various lockdowns and restrictions.

A large share of our sector, which Fraser of Allander estimate contributes £4.4bn in direct gross value added to the Scottish economy, remains shut down and a significant number of our workforce are still furloughed.

While Nicola Sturgeon’s newly published roadmap may provide some hope for these businesses, the plan needs to go further and acknowledge the entirety of the sector. It is practically impossible for drink-led pubs and nightclubs to gradually reopen, and far more challenging to adapt to unwarranted measures, along with the stopping of any further support from the Scottish Government from April onwards.

Since the beginning, the Scottish Hospitality Group has repeatedly offered the government practical and realistic solutions, both at their request and proactively ourselves, that balance economic and public health interests. Now that we’re approaching an easing of restrictions, there is still time for the government to listen to businesses and make sensible and essential changes to the levels system to give us viable trading.

The government is giving cafes the same financial support as the rest of the hospitality sector but is imposing much more lenient restrictions on the former, more or less leaving cafes back to normal trading, albeit with 1m physical distancing.

To redress the imbalance, it would be fairer for pubs, restaurants and hotels to be allowed to trade later as we have requested. Failing that, then allocate the emergency funding more to those businesses that need it the most rather than those that will soon be able to trade virtually as normal.

Our industry’s proposed level system would save over 60,000 jobs and contribute more than £1.2bn to the economy in the short term by altering the levels outlined in the Strategic Framework. Research from leading economic consultancy, BiGGAR Economics, shows that under the current Level 3 restrictions, 54% of hospitality businesses could be operating, which generates a turnover of £269 million and supports 21,900 jobs. If the government was to open with the proposed Level 3 industry change, 73% of businesses could be operating, generating a turnover of £927 million and supporting 53,300 jobs.

The Scottish Hospitality Group is united with other hospitality trade bodies and suggest that small tweaks, such as extending opening hours indoors to 10:30pm and allowing alcohol generally, in Level 3, would allow the sector to meet both public health and economy objectives as strict COVID-19 measures remain in place.

The Scottish Government must help our sector and join us in launching a campaign to rebuild public confidence in well-run and responsible venues which will attract the public back to hospitality. The government must acknowledge the vital role that hospitality plays in the fabric of Scotland’s economy and recognise the huge impact that would result if the sector continues to be let down.

They should take into account the fact that hospitality played no part in the second wave because it was shut; and there never has been an evidence base for the punitive restrictions on the sector, which St Andrew’s House confirmed in a response to a Freedom of Information request that the Scottish Hospitality Group pursued for almost four months.

To quote directly: “Neither the Scottish Government, the Chief Medical Officer’s Advisory Group nor SAGE have produced evidence papers on a sectoral basis. Instead, we have used scientific evidence on transmission coupled with the social and economic benefits of particular sectors which Ministers have used to make decisions.”

We completely understand that lockdown measures were necessary and that a level of restrictions will remain for a while, especially given that the pandemic is far from over. However, there has always been the chance to work with the industry in a smarter manner: to partner with hospitality so that systems are in place that protect public health, people’s jobs and, ultimately boost the economy – something that is essential in these trying times.

We also acknowledge and appreciate that almost every sector of the Scottish economy has been affected by the pandemic. But no industry has been impacted more than hospitality. Even when some premises were able to open, pubs, restaurants and hotels had to follow measures that meant trading was simply not viable.

People will always find a way to drink and socialise – isn’t it better to do so in a safe environment, and help one of our most important economic sectors return back to full fitness itself?

Stephen Montgomery

Scottish Hospitality Group