Covid Scotland: Businesses warn of 'massive step backwards' as government considering tighter restrictions amid 'precarious' situation

Businesses and hospitality groups have warned of a “massive step backwards” in Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, as the Scottish Government hinted tighter Covid-19 restrictions may be announced next week.

Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 6:08 pm

The government is “considering” measures including requiring vaccine passports for indoor venues such as pubs and restaurants, Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs in a Covid-19 update on Tuesday.

But the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said this would be a “massive step backwards” and would have “damaging implications” for businesses.

The Scottish Hospitality Group said the announcement before any consultation with businesses and the hospitality industry showed a lack of planning, and would lead to uncertainty and panic.

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Deputy First Minister John Swinney during a debate concerning vaccine certification at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday September 9, 2021.

Both groups demanded evidence from the Scottish Government supporting the benefit of these potential measures.

Tighter restrictions may be needed to combat a “very quick increase” in levels of Covid in coming weeks, Mr Swinney told MSPs in a Covid-19 update on Tuesday.

While no changes have yet been made, he highlighted a review set for next week, and said the Scottish Government would engage with businesses before then.

Along with a wider vaccine passport programme, which may include negative lateral flow tests as well as proof of vaccination, the Government is considering tightening rules around the wearing of face coverings and further requirements for ventilation and home working.

Tighter restrictions now would avoid the need for harsh lockdowns of the kind seen last year, Mr Swinney said.

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"If the previous pattern characterised by waves of infection is repeated, there is a risk that the spread of the virus could very quickly increase again during the coming weeks, perhaps over the Christmas period,” he said.

“Starting from the current high level of infection in the community, and the intense pressure the NHS is already under as a result, some scenarios for what may happen next are very concerning.

“We need to avoid the most dangerous of those scenarios.”

Mr Swinney outlined specific reasons to expect a rise in case numbers in coming weeks, including more time spent indoors as the weather worsens, COP26, and Scots visiting family over the Christmas period.

But in response to the Deputy First Minister’s comments, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said an increased vaccine passport would be damaging to businesses.

Chief executive Dr Liz Cameron said: “The Deputy First Minister is right to say that Scotland is at a pivotal moment in our recovery from Covid-19 and that’s why it’s essential we don’t now take a massive step backwards through the introduction of further economic deterrents, enhanced baseline measures and increasing use of vaccine certification.

“Given the damaging implications that strengthening the existing baseline protective measures will have on Scotland’s businesses, the Scottish Government must urgently get round the table with businesses to demonstrate the evidence for ramping up restrictions and detail what financial support they will make available for businesses if they choose to do so.”

Ms Cameron said retail and hospitality businesses, which rely on officer worker footfall, would be “deeply concerned” to hear suggestions of increased home working.

“It’s clear the decisions around office return should be left to businesses, in discussion with their employees, and that offices shouldn’t be singled out once again as a key transmission point when many businesses have invested millions in ensuring workplaces are safe for staff, customers and clients,” she said.

The Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG) accused the Scottish Government of poor planning. SHG spokesperson Stephen Montgomery said Mr Swinney’s announcement would have sent hospitality venues into a “panic”.

“I can see why [the Scottish Government] is moving, but again there’s no plan,” he said.

“It’s always been execution first and then everyone has to scramble around in a panic. Once that’s heard, people will have been watching [Mr Swinney’s statement] today, there will be a whole panic.”

Mr Montgomery called for evidence to support the efficacy of the vaccine passport programme.

He said it would have to be adapted as other hospitality venues do not have the same qualified door staff as nightclubs.

“I don't see how they can role this out to other areas of hospitality, when currently there's no evidence to show the situation is actually helping in its current form,” he said.

“And at the moment we need SIA (Security Industry Authority) door staff to refuse entry. How is that going to look in your local greasy spoon cafe?

“You’ve got SIA-badged door staff standing at your door checking Covid certifications … the policy would have to change to implement that.

“Here again we have a case where although the Deputy First Minister is trying to make the public aware, we haven't been consulted at all about this happening.

“It would have been nice to have in some way been able to get round a table and discuss the implications of what would happen if it was rolled out further before it's actually brought to the public.

“All this is doing now is making other businesses and hospitality wonder where it’s going to go.”

Opposition politicians also criticised a potential expansion of vaccine passports.

Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross asked: “How can the Government take those plans forward when it knows the damage that the scheme is already doing to Scottish businesses and the impact that it is having on people’s jobs?”

Labour’s Daniel Johnson raised the “challenges” to staff at cafes in checking Covid certification at the door and also asked for further evidence.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats warned Mr Swinney’s statement was the start of a “steady creep” of vaccine passports into other aspects of people’s lives.

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