Omicron Scotland: 'Don't give us more cash to then shut us down', plead hospitality

The likelihood of additional restrictions being introduced in Scotland to fight the Omicron variant has increased after the Treasury announced more money would be sent to the Scottish Government.

Members of the public continue with their Christmas Shopping in the city centre on December 15
Members of the public continue with their Christmas Shopping in the city centre on December 15

Late on Sunday, the Treasury announced it had ‘doubled’ the available Covid funding to the Scottish Government from £220m to £440m, with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying the additional money would allow the devolved administrations to plan their spending.

However, Nicola Sturgeon questioned whether the money was indeed “additional” or would have to be paid back over the course of 2022/23.

The First Minister also committed the money would help businesses and the “general Covid effort”.

Previously, the First Minister has said the lack of additional financial resources has stopped her from going further to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant.

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It raises the possibility that fresh restrictions could be introduced as early as Tuesday by the SNP leader, with Ms Sturgeon set to update the Scottish Parliament on the next steps for Scotland’s response to Covid-19.

The announcement came as hospitality bosses who had been pleading for additional funding to help them survive the spread of the Omicron variant, warned politicians not to use extra cash as “ammunition” for further restrictions.

The request came amid calls for clarity over whether pubs, bars and restaurants would be allowed to open for Hogmanay celebrations by Thursday, December 23 at the latest.

The Scottish Hospitality Group also pleaded for the public to take a lateral flow test before leaving home and heading to hospitality venues, claiming the ‘pingdemic’ had returned to the industry.

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Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said turnover was down around 40 to 60 per cent when compared to the weekend before Christmas in 2019.

He also said clarity over restrictions for Hogmanay would be required by Thursday, December 23, in order for pubs, bars and restaurants to have ordered stock and told staff when they would be working.

Mr Montgomery also called for a sector-specific furlough for hospitality which would support those forced to isolate due to positive tests, those waiting for test results, or staff who lost work due to hospitality businesses being unable to open due to Covid-19.

He said: “We are not calling for furlough to give them ammunition to lock us down, it is strictly for staff so if they have to go off or go get a PCR, that their job is secure, they know that their wages are secure.

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"We can’t do anymore than we already have done. Cutting people down to 6pm or no music or no alcohol, all it does is put people to house parties.

"All we would ask is that businesses do everything they are being asked of, making sure customers track and trace, make sure that they wear face coverings, do everything you are supposed to do.”

Louise Maclean of Signature Pubs, one of the members of the Scottish Hospitality Group, told the BBC’s The Sunday Show one of their bars lost £55,000 over two days.

Ms Maclean also called for a flexible furlough scheme for those unable to work due to the pandemic or through no fault of their own.

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She said: “They can’t seem to get on to form a cohesive plan. In business, if you did that, you wouldn’t have a job.

"On Thursday and Friday, just in one venue, we lost £55,000 in two days, so £4,500 is quite literally a drop in the ocean.”

Stuart Mackinnon, of the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, said retail businesses were already reporting a slower December than in 2019 prior to the statements from government leaders.

He said: "Since we had the statements by both the First Minister and the Prime Minister in the last week, anecdote suggests that trade has been down for both hospitality businesses and retail businesses, especially those located in our cities and town centres.

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"Naturally, different businesses in different places are performing differently at this time while some firms have a lot of pre-orders and it seems like independent food and drink businesses seem to be doing relatively well, operators relying more on passing trade seem to be facing a bigger dip in turnover.

"We’ve seen consumers respond to the messaging from governments in Edinburgh and London and a share of those people will have stayed at home rather than going down their local high street.”

He added that much of the “resilience” among businesses that was present prior to the pandemic in the form of cash reserves had been depleted during the previous lockdowns.

He said: “What would be the worst possible outcome for small businesses in Scotland would be a lockdown situation without sufficient support to see them through.”

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Nicola Sturgeon has regularly said she requires more money to help mitigate the impact of further restrictions which would most likely fall on high risk venues such as pubs, bars, restaurants and the events industry.

The funding announcement also suggests the UK Government may be set to announce new restrictions in England to tackle Omicron and requires its own additional funding to help businesses ride them out.

Announcing the extra money, the chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “Following discussions with the devolved administrations, we are now doubling the additional funding available.

“We will continue to listen to and work with the devolved administrations in the face of this serious health crisis to ensure we’re getting the booster to people all over the UK and that people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supported.”

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However, the money is in effect an advance on the expected Barnett consequentials which the devolved administrations receive following the ‘supplementary estimates’ procedure in Whitehall.

This is when the UK Government increases the budget for its departments, triggering the payment of consequentials.

The Treasury said if the amount due to Scotland as part of this is lower than the £440m the Scottish Government will receive, the money will have to be paid back over the period of the 2022/23 budget.

If the amount due through the Barnett consequentials is higher than the £440m, any extra money will be kept by the devolved administrations.

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Reacting on Twitter, Nicola Sturgeon said she was seeking confirmation the cash is “additional”, and said it would all go to businesses and the “overall Covid effort”.

She said: “Before we get spin on ‘doubling’. 1) The additional £220m announced last week was NOT new or additional (it was actually £48m less than we had been expecting).

"Seeking confirmation if this new £220m is additional (tho if so £48m will just make up last w/k loss) and if it has to be repaid.

"2) To the extent it is new/additional, Scottish Government will make sure it goes in full to helping business and the overall Covid effort.”

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She added that “much more urgency” was required by the UK Government to ensure “devolved gov hands not tied”.

Ms Sturgeon also said it was “disappointing” the Prime Minister and the Chancellor did not attend the Cobra meeting held on Sunday evening, attended by representatives from all four nations of the UK.

The Scottish Conservative’s finance spokesperson, Murdo Fraser, welcomed the news and called for the money to be paid out by Christmas.

He said: “This is very welcome news from the UK Government. This money will provide vital support to Scottish businesses – especially those in the hospitality sector – that have badly hit by the Omicron variant.

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“It is now up to the SNP Government to get this cash out of the door before Christmas to those struggling businesses who need it most.”

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