'The sector is on its knees': Scots hospitality group threatens to take ministers to court over trading times

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SCOTLAND’S leading hospitality group has threatened to take ministers to court over its plans to release Scotland from lockdown.

The Scottish Hospitality Group which represents 2000 businesses across Scotland has said legal action was on the cards if ministers do not improve the trading times allowed under more relaxed Covid-19 restrictions.

They say that as it stands pubs and restaurants will go to the wall, because the current plans to ease hospitality lockdown from April 26 is “unviable.”

It would mean following in the footsteps of two of the biggest names in hospitality in England who threatened to take the government to court over its plans release the country from lockdown.

Punch Taverns founder Hugh Osmond and Greater Manchester’s night time economy adviser, Sacha Lord, said the industry is losing £200m a day.

The SHG has sought Scottish Government answers over the evidence that has led to the hospitality being “unfairly targeted” by stringent lockdowns over the past year – but ministers have been unable to produce any.

Sacha Lord has already forced the UK government to drop the rule requiring English businesses to serve alcohol alongside a ‘substantial meal’ after arguing it was discriminatory to certain sections of society.

He has been seeking a judicial review to allow both indoor and outdoor hospitality to reopen at the same time as non-essential retail on April 12.

Pubs remain closed in Scotland until April 26 at the earliest, when they should be able to open but with alcohol outdoors only. This will be followed by fuller-indoor reopening on May 17, but there is still no date for when all restrictions will be removed.

The sector had called for alcohol to be allowed indoors till 10pm or 10.30pm with a main meal as mainland Scotland moves into Level 3 in Scotland’s tier system on April 26.

What they got was a demand to close by 8pm indoors with no alcohol served. Outdoors alcohol can be served till 10pm.

READ MORE: Hospitality industry slams Scottish Government-backed study that doubts if bars can stop Covid-19 transmission

According to the Scottish Beer & Pub Association, the leading trade association representing brewers and pubs, the loss of beer sales from this Easter bank holiday weekend alone will result in the sector losing out on £31 million in trade across Scotland that would have been crucial to its recovery.

But Stephen Montgomery the Scottish Hospitality Group spokesman, who owns The Townhead Hotel in Lockerbie said: “That still remains an unviable position for many and it is certainly an unviable position for bars that don’t have an outside trading area.

“You are relying on the Scottish weather here, where you get four seasons in one day.”

The relaxing of lockdown revealed last month would allow for one-off ‘restart grants’ for businesses.

Hospitality businesses will receive a final four-weekly payment under the Strategic Framework Business Fund. And on April 19, recipients of SFBF grants will receive a combined two-week supplement and a one-off restart grant of up to £19,500.

The SHG said there was also concern that Professor Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director of the Scottish Government said it could be October before indoor events and live singing would be allowed, despite current grant support ending from April 19.

“Late night venues, nightclubs and city circuit bars simply won’t survive the next six months without additional emergency funding,” Mr Montgomery warned.

He added: “We absolutely cannot stress this enough. If the government does not listen to reason, we may be forced to follow suit with our English counterparts and take the Scottish Government to court to give a fighting chance to the thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of people the sector employs.”

Asked what it would require to avoid legal action, he said: “They need to allow us better trading times.”

He added: “We have so many great bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs in Scotland. Small tweaks to the levels and further financial support for businesses that have been hardest hit isn’t too much to ask for. It will save jobs and give a glimmer of hope to a sector that is already on its knees.

“As MSPs are out campaigning for votes, it is critical that they listen to what the industry needs to survive, and the Scottish Government must take on board our proactive recommendations for the levels system.”

READ MORE: ‘Shut down rogue pubs and restaurants over Covid breaches’, says Scots hospitality group

The respected Fraser of Allander Institute in its latest quarterly economic commentary has, meanwhile, outlined the “disproportionate” impact of lockdowns on the hospitality sector.

Its latest Consumer Tracker analysis found that year-on-year spend on eating and drinking out, in Scotland, declined by 49% and 41% respectively in the last three months of last year.

Since June 2020, the share of operating accommodation and food services businesses reporting lower turnovers than usual was around 60% and peaked in August and November last year above 90%. It said that in January and February there was no sign of a trend reversal with more than 70% of businesses in the sector reporting lower turnover than usual.

“Comparing this number to the current cross-industry average of 45% shows how the sector is disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” the analysis states.

“For the hardest hit sectors, such as tourism and hospitality, they will be hoping there is recognition of the months of turmoil that they have faced and for the new government to place a strong focus on rebuilding the economy.

“There are particular sectors, like hospitality, that will be looking for commitments of continued support, extending beyond the period of lockdown restrictions.

“However, there are huge uncertainties around when physical distancing will end, the future of workplaces themselves, and the evolution of the behaviour of consumers.

“The hospitality sector has been asymmetrically impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent national lockdowns and travel restrictions.

A large share of the sector remains shut down and a significant number of its workforce are still furloughed.

“But, the impact of the closure of this sector is not limited to hospitality as its interconnectedness with other Scottish sectors means that there are spillover effects of shutting down this industry.

“This sector is a major contributor to the Scottish economy and work will need to be done in the future to ensure that this industry, and the employees working within it, are supported in Scotland’s economic recovery from COVID-19.”

Ministers were asked for records relating to the scientific, statistical, or medical evidence related to public health controls on the spread of Covid-19 and how these relate to the hospitality sector, such as pubs and restaurants.

In response, the Scottish Government admitted there was no evidence b : “We are aware how difficult this set of restrictions has been for businesses, employees and communities alike, and we do appreciate this has been a very daunting time for the many, many businesses that have been severely impacted by this pandemic.

“The Scottish Government has not taken these decisions lightly. From May until October 2020 (when the new Strategic Framework was announced) the decisions on what sectors and activities to re-open on our route out of lockdown were guided by the principles set out in the Framework for Decision Making.

“Proposals were technically assessed using the best available evidence and analysis of their potential benefits and harms to health, the economy, and broader society to minimise overall harm and ensure transmission of the virus continues to be suppressed. This assessment process included oversight of the assessed health risks in different settings by the Chief Medical Officer and input from the other chief clinicians as appropriate.

Neither the Scottish Government, the Chief Medical Officer’s Advisory Group nor the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have produced evidence papers on a sectoral basis.

“Instead we have used scientific evidence on transmission coupled with the social and economic benefits of particular sectors which ministers have used to make decisions.

“The restrictions we have put in place are based on evidence, we do not want to cause unnecessary harm to businesses, but we will take action to protect people from infection by SARS-CoV-2, leading to COVID-19. Some of the restrictions are aimed at venues where alcoholic beverages are consumed indoors, due to the changes in behaviour resulting from their consumption, such as reduced social distancing and talking more loudly, which can increase the risk of spreading the virus.”

It said the highest risk for close-range transmission is when someone is face-to-face with an infectious person at a distance of 2m or less for a prolonged period.

The risk increases with the amount of time spent in close proximity to the infectious person and with the reduction of distance.

The SHG carried out a survey across 6000 staff between July to Sept and there was a record of had 32 positive cases. They say that worked out at one positive case for every 36000 hours of working time.

“Hospitality played no part in the second wave because it was shut; and the government recently confirmed it had no evidence to justify restrictions on the sector,” said Mr Montgomery.

“Despite that, the government is persisting with two fundamental flaws in its approach to easing restrictions. The first is that alcohol is still taking the blame with no justification. The second is that there’s no logic at all for the cut-off times. On both issues, the industry has put forward practical, realistic and sensible proposals that balance economic and public health interests.

“We completely understand that lockdown measures were necessary and that a level of restrictions will remain for a while, especially given that the pandemic is far from over. “We also acknowledge and appreciate that almost every sector of the Scottish economy has been affected by the pandemic. “However, no industry has been impacted more than hospitality.”

The industry has long argued that pubs re-opening last July had a negligible effect on infections, which only began to rise after schools reopened. And the Chancellor recently defended his own Eat out to Help out scheme, arguing that it protected jobs.

Mr Osmond and Mr Lord had asked the government to seek specific advice from scientists “whether it is justifiable to prevent the hospitality industry opening whilst, at the same time, allowing non-essential shops to open”.

They argued that “transmission is plainly higher in non-essential shops,” and warned of legal action if the government did not provide evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the SBPA revealed that Scottish pubs will miss out on selling eight million pints this Easter due to the fact they are required to remain closed.

Pubs across Scotland also remain unable to sell takeaway beer this Easter too, due to restrictions meaning they can only sell food for takeaway and not beer.

It means those looking to celebrate the Easter bank holiday weekend cannot do so at their local, either for a pint in the beer garden or for a roast dinner. The SBPA says it is crucial that pubs in Scotland can re-open and trade as soon as possible, and the Scottish Government sets a date for the complete removal of restrictions.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As the First Minister has made clear, no one wants lockdown restrictions in place for a moment longer than necessary.

“The changes that we hope to make on April 26 are significant and we will need to monitor them carefully. For that reason we do not expect any further changes to be made before May 17.

“However, from that date, we hope that all level 3 areas – or as many as possible – will move to level 2.

“We would hope, from that date, indoor hospitality could return to greater normality, with alcohol able to be served indoors and within more normal opening hours.

“The precise detail of any continued restrictions will depend on an assessment of the situation closer to the time. But we will be aiming for us as much normality as possible.”