Mid-July reopening for tourism industry not soon enough, according to Borders MSP

Scottish Government rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing at Holyrood yesterday. (Photo by Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)Scottish Government rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing at Holyrood yesterday. (Photo by Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)
Scottish Government rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing at Holyrood yesterday. (Photo by Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)
Borders MSP Rachael Hamilton has hit out at the Scottish Government over its timetable for relaxing lockdown laws, accusing it of not doing enough to help the region’s tourism industry survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP Mrs Hamilton, also shadow cabinet secretary for tourism, claims jobs are being put at risk unnecessarily by making the entire hospitality industry wait another five weeks to begin the summer season put on hold by the start of the lockdown in March.

Scottish Government rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday, June 10, pencilled in Wednesday, July 15, as a likely date for tourism businesses to resume trading, but Mrs Hamilton, a hotelier by trade, believes it would be safe for many to open long before then, during the second, rather than third, phase of Scotland’s exit from lockdown.

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Questioning Mr Ewing at the Scottish Parliament yesterday, she said: “I welcome the first Covid-19 statement giving an update for the tourism industry.

“We must restart the engines of our economy while controlling and managing flare-up of the virus.

“Some parts of the tourism industry are ready to reopen. Others are not.

“Additional clarity is needed to bring everyone on the journey, leaving nobody behind.

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“Self-caterers have been knocked back time and again by the government during the pandemic.

“There has been a lack of funding for the sector since the start of lockdown, and its initial ineligibility in the criteria for support grants was unfair and damaging.

“Self-catering units are, undoubtedly, the most appropriate forms of accommodation that could open safely as the majority of such units have no shared facilities and represent the least risk.

“That is evident from the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers survey that was published yesterday.

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“Some 75% of self-caterers say that they could open safely in phase two if travel restrictions are eased and robust cleaning guidance is provided.

“Some 42% of respondents said that the government’s support for self-catering has been either poor or very poor.

“It is concerning that almost half of businesses are either somewhat or very pessimistic about the future.

“Will the Scottish Government enable certain parts of the tourism economy to open sooner than has been mentioned in today’s statement?”

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Mr Ewing, MSP for Inverness and Nairn, replied: “My colleagues and I are working round the clock to provide financial support to businesses.

“That is intended not to restore lost revenue, which would be impossible, but to provide a bridge to mitigate the hardship that they are suffering and to get them through this period.

“We are straining every sinew to do that, and we are doing so round the clock.

“We are determined to do our very best.”

Mrs Hamilton was unimpressed by that assurance, however, saying afterwards: “This statement is too little too late.

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“Tourism bosses have been demanding a plan of action for months and yet this is a half-hearted attempt to give the industry assurances.

“We need clarity, and today’s statement provided very little detail and fails to address the basic issues facing hotels, tourism attractions and holiday parks.

“If the Scottish National Party had got their act together sooner on testing and contact tracing, tourism would have been able to restart at an earlier date.

“Time is running out and we are seeing a contracted tourism period due to the SNP’s lack of action and clarity.”

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Delivering his statement yesterday, Mr Ewing said: “The current situation with Covid-19 is one of the biggest challenges that we have faced in our lifetimes.

“Preservation of life has been our overriding objective since the start of this crisis. It is that simple.

“However, the measures that we have taken, and are continuing to take, to deal with this crisis reflect its magnitude.

“We have had to implement restrictions on liberties that have had a very serious impact on our economy, and our tourism and hospitality sector has been devastated.

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“I understand how difficult this is. Businesses have gone from anticipating another bumper tourism season this summer to seeing their income drop to zero almost overnight.

“The Scottish and United Kingdom governments have moved quickly to try to address the financial challenges that are faced by businesses affected by the current crisis, including those in the tourism and hospitality sector.

“From my numerous discussions with industry over the past weeks and months, I know that what the industry needs now is clarity on when it will be able to reopen and start on the long road back to sustainability and growth.

“I fully understand the unique challenges that the uncertainty is creating.

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“Businesses need to know what orders to place and when. They need to have the confidence to take bookings while understanding the risks inherent in the continued presence of the virus.

“To take bookings, they need to be able to plan staff rotas and shifts and to restock. They need to be in a position of readiness to go once restrictions are lifted and to avoid any unnecessary delays.

“Some businesses may also wish to pre-purchase personal protective equipment.

“Visitors need time to request annual leave and to make bookings. Notice, preparedness and readiness go hand in hand and are a key part of preparing for recovery.

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“The Scottish Government understands the exceptional and very challenging circumstances facing our tourism and hospitality sector.

“It is heavily dependent on seasonality, meaning that the already-limited opportunities are narrowing by the day.

“Many businesses are facing key decisions about their futures, with all the implications for jobs and investment. It is an unenviable position by any measure.

“I do not seek to underplay the impact that this crisis is having on all parts of Scotland’s economy, which is profound. However, those facts set the sector apart, and that needs to be recognised.

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“We have heard the messages clearly and we are not impervious to the sector’s calls for more clarity.

“Our responsibility is to balance the exceptional circumstances that the industry faces with the need to continue to take the right steps at the right time to protect life.

“Covid-19 has not gone away. It remains a threat.

“However, I am keen to give additional clarity where possible and to provide an indicative date from which we hope that the sector can begin to operate. That date cannot be definitive. The science and health advice must be in the right place. The virus must have been suppressed, the test and protect system must be used effectively and our route map must be on course.

“Given the vital interdependencies between the tourism and hospitality sector and wider sectors of the economy, including public transport, we must make holistic decisions about when to change restrictions.

“We cannot make changes for any sector in isolation.

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“That is why we must be assured that the epidemic is suppressed to enable the more general opening-up of our country that will come with the reopening of tourism and hospitality.

“In that way everyone – employees, tourists and customers – can be confident that it is safe to make this change.

“Statutory reviews of the current restrictions are required on June 18 and July 9. As things stand just now, our hope is that we will be able to give the go-ahead for a reopening of the sector at the review on July 9. Assuming that that proves possible, some time would then be required for interconnected services such as transport to prepare.

“On that basis, and on the clear understanding with the industry that nothing can be absolutely guaranteed at this stage and that we may need to change this date if the evidence requires it, we would encourage tourism and hospitality businesses to prepare, within appropriate safety guidelines, for reopening on July 15.

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“That timetable is by necessity both provisional and conditional.

“We very much hope that it can be met and that setting it out now, even with caveats, gives the sector greater clarity and some much-needed ability to plan ahead.”

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