Covid pub and restaurant closures risk disaster unless politicians come up with a rescue plan – Stephen Jardine

October is normally a favourite time for bars and restaurants. As the nights draw in, people increasingly move indoors to drink and socialise. Meanwhile chefs are spoilt for choice when it comes to produce with game and the full bounty of the harvest season.

Pubs and restaurants need a better idea of what the future holds as the Covid outbreak continues, says Stephen Jardine (Picture: Jacky Ghossein)
Pubs and restaurants need a better idea of what the future holds as the Covid outbreak continues, says Stephen Jardine (Picture: Jacky Ghossein)

But not this year. Instead of enjoying the advantages of autumn, today bars and restaurants across the Central Belt are closed. Outside that area venues can remain open but alcohol can only be served outside.

Thursday’s announcement by the First Minister means central Scotland now faces the tightest Covid restrictions in the UK with more than three million people affected. According to the Scottish Hospitality Group, which represents leading industry figures, this is effectively a death sentence for many businesses with thousands of jobs expected to be lost.

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In nearly 10 years of writing this column, I’ve never known key figures in hospitality to be this angry. For a start, they don’t accept the justification for closure. The Scottish Government say 20 per cent of Covid infections in Scotland have been linked back to hospitality but that doesn’t make it the source. The same people were probably also in gyms, petrol stations and supermarkets.

Lumping the whole industry together is also problematic when bars, restaurants and hotels all function in different ways. But the biggest frustration is the fact the hospitality sector feels it has been doing everything right and is actually much more Covid secure than many homes or businesses.

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The £40 million promised by the Scottish Government to mitigate the impact of the lockdown will help but the dent to public confidence is likely to be much more costly.

Most bars and restaurants were just starting to emerge into the light. Now they’ve been plunged back into the gloom. Hotels are allowed to remain open but on Wednesday night alone Crieff Hydro had more than 50 cancellations from people who felt they could no longer travel, despite the First Minister saying half-term holidays should go ahead.

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Everyone hopes the closures will do what they are designed to do and bring the infection rate down in two weeks. But if they don’t, what then?

More than anything else, the hospitality industry wants a plan for moving forward.

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The current closures may be a knee-jerk reaction but with infections growing by seven per cent a day, that is understandable. Nobody wants to be back to the level of hospitalisation and death we had reached in March.

But we cannot keep opening and closing the hospitality sector like an old cookery book until a vaccine is found. With every closure, more businesses will go under and jobs will be lost.

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Nobody really believes there will be a vaccine by Christmas. Instead we need to look at this in the long term. That may mean some restrictions on hospitality that will be around for six months but at least businesses can plan and work around that. At the moment it’s death by a thousand cuts and constant changes.

Crucially, with furlough about to end, more sector-specific help is required and the UK Government needs to dig deep. These are the darkest days for Scottish hospitality but worse will be to come unless politicians talk to the industry and jointly come up with a plan.

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