12 Oct 2020
I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk to owners and representatives from business and trade organisations today.
Too often the voices of employers have not been heard enough in our politics and in the media throughout this crisis.
And I feel that, given the events of the last week, we need to listen to your views and advice now more than ever.
Because the effects of not doing so are damaging to us all.
Decisions that are taken to protect public health, have a knock-on impact on jobs and businesses.
There will be necessary restrictions that need to be introduced at times to control the spread of the virus, both at a national and local level.
Those decisions on when to increase and reduce restrictions will need to carefully balance safeguarding lives with avoiding doing disproportionate harm to livelihoods.
We all understand this and, difficult as they are, follow these measures.
However, there is also the management of raising and lowering restrictions.
If we do not manage the introduction of new measures properly then that can cause needless damage to our economy on top of the effects of the restrictions themselves.
Back in the spring, Coronavirus was a new challenge, there was no rulebook that we could follow on how to handle it.
It was therefore expected that the measures that we took to combat it were blunt and untargeted.
However, the virus has now unfortunately been a part of our lives for the past seven months.
And it will continue to remain a threat for many months to come.
The rising number of cases right now are a painful reminder of that.
So it is clear that we are going to have to go through more cycles of easing and tightening restrictions before we get through this.
And how we manage that process is going to be important for the security of jobs and for keeping businesses afloat
Coronavirus is no longer a new challenge, so we need to learn from what has worked and what hasn’t, if we are going to avoid needless economic damage.
That is why I feel that now is the right time to have that discussion with business.
Because it is you who is having to manage the impact of restrictions on your businesses
And you who will know what support you need from government to do that.
So, I look forward to our engagement today and to using this as an opportunity to promote the guidance and support that you need.
But before we do that, let me offer a few thoughts of my own on the past week.
Frustration is the one word that I expect many of you would use to describe the way that you are feeling right now.
Frustration, that the latest restrictions were announced just 51 hours before they were due to come into force.
Frustration, that there are still no details of the support funding that you will be relying on.
And probably frustration that you are having to go through this all over again.
Despite the overwhelming majority of businesses taking the necessary precautions and investing in public health protection,
doing the right thing
right now, we are closer to the situation that we faced in March, than we are to any kind of normality.
For pubs, restaurants and hotels in the Central Belt, the latest restrictions are a total shutdown for the next two weeks.
And by being told to stop serving alcohol and close by 6pm, the same premises are facing an effective shutdown in the rest of the country for that time as well.
I can understand why the Scottish Chambers of Commerce has described these measures as a “death knell” for some premises.
Then there is the indirect effect that this all has on other businesses.
Suppliers may not face restrictions themselves but because the hospitality businesses that they sell to have been shut down, they find orders cancelled and stock going to waste.
Scotland Food & Drink has said that “They will be fearful for their future”
Last week I spoke to a laundry company who told me hotels account for 90% of their work.
Or the coach companies who stand ready to be part of the solution to our recovery but whose vehicles remain parked up and empty, as they have been for months.
And as a former dairy farm labourer, you’ll not be surprised to hear me say that I know that milk cannot just wait in tankers for two weeks for restrictions to be eased.
Shops may find that they no longer have a customer base as footfall in our high streets and shopping centres drops dramatically from people being unable to eat out.
Just when customers were adapting to a new normal and settling into routines.
When some businesses could begin to account for a degree of regularity in cashflows and had brought staff back from furlough.
For many people, hearing the briefing of a “circuit breaker” or “second lockdown” over the past weeks will have undermined their confidence.
They will conclude that it is not safe to travel, they should stay at home and only go out for the essentials.
And you have no idea what comes next, as Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director, has said “when we come out of this we can get back to the next version”
But we have no indication of what the “next version” is.
I can understand why many of you are frustrated.
Throughout this pandemic, information and guidance has been slow to reach you.
You have had to carry the costs of managing this pandemic.
You have had to pay to ensure your business has appropriate health safeguards in place, to protect your customers and staff.
Yet in return the Scottish Government has not supported you as it should have.
Even now guidance is still being published and updated for some businesses on last week’s restrictions.
They still have not been able to give a definition of the difference between a café and a restaurant.
And we have no information on what the funding support package that you are going to rely on looks like.
These are the essential details that can make the difference to whether a business decides to keep trading or close its doors for good
Or whether a member of staff is going to lose their job or not.
You deserve better support from the Scottish Government.
If it is telling you to forgo income or close down, then you at least deserve to be better informed and better equipped with the right support to deal with that challenge.
So, as part of our discussion, I have some constructive suggestions for the Scottish Government which I believe will respond to some of the frustrations that you are feeling.
My party has already proposed the creation of a hardship fund.
This would deliver dedicated funding to help businesses to adapt to new restrictions or survive short shut downs.
I have also written to the First Minister to match the ambition of the UK Chancellor and outline her own Winter Economy Plan.
For its part, the UK Government has already delivered substantial support for businesses since the start of this pandemic.
65,000 Scottish businesses have been able to take advantage of grants and bounce back loans.
The furlough and self-employed support schemes have protected over 900,000 Scottish jobs.
And the further announcement on Friday does not only mean an expansion of job and business support to deal with new restrictions
but also, an additional £700 million in funding for the Scottish Government to support the Scottish economy.
To me, it seems obvious that the Scottish Government should distribute this £700 million to the affected businesses, including many of you, as soon as possible.
Everybody knows that £40 million they have allocated is not nearly enough for our hospitality sector, let alone the other businesses affected.
So, I say this directly to the Scottish Government
our businesses need support, you have the money
What are you waiting for?
But if the experience of the past week has shown anything, it is the importance of getting the guidance right and of giving due notice before restrictions are introduced.
That is why I am calling on the Scottish Government today to do three things to prevent that experience happening again.
Firstly, we need to see some real business input into the setting of restrictions and the writing of guidance.
Who better to know what guidance is needed than the people who are going to have to follow it?
And public health advice should be balanced by the needs of workers and businesses.
So, we are calling for the Scottish Government to establish a ‘Coronavirus Business Restrictions Advisory Council’ to advise on the needs of businesses and inform the decisions taken on easing and introducing restrictions.
Secondly, in the past week we have seen businesses given just two days to prepare, for in some cases, total shut down.
That is unfair and made worse by rushed and inadequate guidance.
That is why we believe that there should be a one week minimum ‘Adaptation Period’ between the announcement and the introduction of measures.
While we understand the need to take swift action to limit the spread of the virus, we also need to give businesses time to prepare for restrictions.
Finally, businesses need to have a clear understanding of the help that is available to them as restrictions increase.
It is not good enough for new rules to come into force and the details of business support to be worked out later.
If a business finds itself closed or seriously impacted by new restrictions, then it should be automatically entitled to a standard ‘Scottish Business Restrictions Grant’.
All businesses should be subject to the same calculations in determining the size of their grant, streamlining the process for delivering funding.
This could be combined with our previous proposal for a hardship fund and would allow businesses to better plan ahead in responding to new restrictions.
These measures would not eliminate the devastating impact that restrictions will have on businesses.
But they do ensure that businesses have the time, funding and proper guidance that they need to prepare for them.
We know that it takes real grit to set up and run your own business.
Investing your time and savings on building something that you can truly call yours.
From getting your first job, to hiring your first staff member and watching your business become an integral part of your community.
Local businesses are the building blocks of our villages, towns and cities.
They provide the goods and services that we all use and often take for granted.
It must be beyond tragic to watch that business struggle and potentially fail.
To have to end partnerships that may be years old.
Let go of staff that have been become as familiar as family.
And close the doors on a dream that you have invested much of your life into.
It must be even harder to go through all that knowing that none of it was your fault and there was nothing you could do.
Both of our governments should be doing all that they can so that this happens to as few businesses as possible.
If we get the right guidance and the necessary funding in place then I believe that we can support you properly through this crisis.
The Scottish Conservative Party that I lead will always stand up for the interests of business.
We recognise not only the sacrifices that you have had to make throughout this pandemic.
But the vital role that you have always played in our communities and in our country.
We share your frustration with the Scottish Government’s actions over the past week.
And we stand ready to work and campaign with you
so that you get the support that you deserve.