Lifting of most restrictions welcomed but 'long-term problems remain', says Highlands and Islands business leader

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North business leader David Richardson hailed the lifting of most Covid restrictions in Scotland next week as very good news, while warning that “long-term problems remain” for the tourism sector.

He was speaking after Nicola Sturgeon outlined a relaxing of rules in a statement to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Richardson, the Highlands and Islands development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “This is very good news for businesses across the Highlands and Islands and it is something that we have been arguing strongly for.

“However, we know from our survey work that a worryingly large number of tourism businesses remain concerned that the delayed start to the season, combined with the absence of international visitors, is having a serious impact.

“Moreover, long-term problems remain, and this week’s announcement is no guarantee of economic success. In particular, if we don’t make every effort to solve the staffing shortage issue, it is hard to see a full and successful recovery taking place.”

Andrew McRae, the FSB’s Scotland policy chairman, said Scottish business leaders would feel “a cocktail of elation and worry” over the First Minister’s statement.

“Firms will be relieved that the bulk of the remaining restrictions will be lifted,” Mr McRae said. “This will give many businesses the opportunity to increase capacity, create jobs and drive growth. While many operators will choose to retain working practices and staff protections developed during the crisis, this increased flexibility will allow firms to move in the right direction for them.

“But the removal of the public health restrictions doesn’t guarantee the recovery of either an individual business or a local economy. Operators now face trading conditions permanently changed by the crisis and new debt that they’ll need to manage in the months and years to come. Some business leaders are nervous that the sacrifices they’ve made will be forgotten.

“Ministers in Edinburgh and London have an opportunity to bolster rising Scottish business optimism by helping firms get back on their feet. That means keeping a lid on overheads they control, like taxes and charges, and plainly communicating the remaining rules.

“Policymakers need to take action to help firms get the skills and labour they need to adapt to a world that the pandemic changed. And we’ll need long-term investment to boost our town and city centres hit for six by the Covid crisis.”

The announcement by Ms Sturgeon that Scotland will go beyond level zero coronavirus restrictions is “the news we’ve been waiting for”, according to a licensed trade group.

The First Minister confirmed on Tuesday that most legal restrictions to contain the spread of Covid-19 will be lifted in Scotland from Monday, but she warned the virus still posed a threat as she outlined the relaxing of rules in a statement to parliament.

Colin Wilkinson, managing director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), said: “This is the best news the licensed hospitality industry has had for over a year – it’s the news we’ve been waiting for and I’m sure there will be a few champagne corks popping to celebrate, at long last, a return to near-normal trading.

“We are particularly relieved that physical distancing restrictions can be dropped as the one-metre rule made trading very difficult for some premises, particularly smaller ones. Premises can now get back to operating at maximum capacity.

“However, while we understand why the Scottish Government wants to keep some mitigation measures in place, including the mandatory wearing of face coverings in some public spaces and a need for hospitality and indoor venues to continue to collect customers’ contact details, we hope that this is a short-term requirement.

“We are also relieved that those identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 will no longer be automatically required to self-isolate for 10 days – many businesses have been forced to close temporarily while staff self-isolate and this has been a big, big problem for our industry.”

News that night-time industry can reopen will “come as a relief” for operators who have been unable to trade since March 2020. “All sectors of the licensed hospitality industry have suffered but nightclubs and late-night operators have been in particularly dire straits so this news really does come as a relief,” Mr Wilkinson said.

Changes to self-isolation requirements are also welcomed as this is “a major ongoing problem for the sector”, Mr Wilkinson noted.

He also reiterated the SLTA’s previous calls for further financial aid to ensure the survival of the licensed hospitality industry, with an extension to the support schemes available.

On Wednesday, the licensed hospitality trade received confirmation that “vertical drinking” – otherwise known as standing at the bar – will be permitted from Monday.

Mr Wilkinson attended a meeting with the Scottish Government and other industry groups following what the SLTA called “confusing messages” from Deputy First Minister John Swinney in a radio broadcast.

“It is absolutely crucial to have this clarified, although we are still waiting for the finer detail on this and other questions,” Mr Wilkinson said. “However, we thank the Scottish Government for their time and hope that further information is forthcoming before Monday.”

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