As I See It: Terry Murden
There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s futuristic sci-fi comedy Sleeper where a scientist tells him smoking is good for him. Don’t laugh. Scientists are now saying smoking could be a defence against coronavirus. It must be true. I read it in the Daily Mail.
What next? Detergent a possible antidote? Well, let’s not be silly. What is more encouraging is work on a drug in a Fife lab which could be turned into a nasal spray that prevents the virus getting into the lungs. This is important, according to the scientists, as it could help with survival rates and, yes, there is a link to the benefits of nicotine.
So could Scotland have a treatment for the killer bug? It would be typical that a pioneering Scot’s lab would come up with a groundbreaking development – only for one of the big pharmaceuticals companies in the US, France, Switzerland or Japan to snap it up. We could add it to our list of innovations while they rake in the cash.
All the more reason why the high-growth advisers at Scottish Enterprise should be rounding up a posse of business angels and heading to St Andrews to slam some golden handcuffs on the chaps at Pneumagen, a spin-out company from the University which deserves close attention. Of course, it may come to nothing. But we’ll only know if their Neumifil drug is any good by backing it with all the resources available.
In the meantime, a lot of hope is resting on US drug company Gilead Science’s antiviral treatment remdesivir which has driven up world stock markets, though a study has suggested it may be no more effective in tackling the virus than a placebo.
Finding a cure for Covid-19 has become the world’s number one priority. Until we do, or the virus disappears as quickly as it emerged, nothing can really be the same again.
Heartbreak for hotels?
Innovation is certainly something we need right now with so many businesses wondering if they have any future at all. I can’t see ‘hotelier’ or ‘bar owner’ being high on the list of aspirations among young people just now.
Hotels are currently sitting empty as leisure and business tourists stay away. What a turnaround in just a few months. Applications have been overwhelming planning departments. Glasgow has at least five at various stages of development in Argyle Street, North Hanover Street, Queen Street, St Vincent Street and Trongate. In Edinburgh there are two scheduled for Haymarket, one for St James, three for Princes Street and Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel in Victoria Street.
Will they all get built? There is already talk of converting some hotels into affordable housing. The same goes for student accommodation with expectations of more than 200,000 fewer foreign students heading for the UK.
Keep your distance
Some other big projects will require a re-think. Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey was forced to deny a report last weekend that the city could no longer afford the tram extension to Newhaven. It does seem a bit of a luxury given the pressure on budgets just now.
Indeed, the plan to develop more pedestrianisation and force more of us to use public transport is up against policies promoting social distancing and remote working. I’m hearing people say they’ll be avoiding buses, trams and trains for a few months, instead opting for their cars, bicycles and walking to work, where they can keep well away from other travellers.
This ‘new normal’ is an economy likely to be a third smaller by the end of June and with business life returning only slowly, and not as we knew it.
Marks & Spencer was teasing us in its latest update with talk of a shopping experience that will “never be the same again”. Certainly we can expect shops to install more glass or plastic screens for cashiers, more packaging and even more ventilation.
The surge in home and remote working will likely reduce commuting and probably demand for commercial property. A combination of all these has already persuaded some to recommend diverting infrastructure spending away from physical projects such as the HS2 rail line and into broadband and other communications technology.
The evidence is already mounting. Barclays boss Jess Staley has talked of no longer packing thousands of staff into big offices which may become a thing of the past.
There are also implications for how we transact deals, including the development of electronic signatures for legal documents and the acceleration towards a cashless society.
However, it will be an uncomfortable future if the distancing measures become a longer term part of all aspects of life. Covering faces, now strongly advised by the Scottish Government, can only do so much. Sitting two metres apart in bars, restaurants and hotels is impractical and economically unviable.
There has to be a better solution or we’re facing lots of permanently boarded up premises and fewer leisure facilities to enjoy. Economists, politicians and other commentators are queuing up to claim that the lockdown cure may cause irretrievable damage to the economy.
Hope for the hospitality sector lies in a surge of staycationers – holidaymakers choosing a holiday closer to home. Scotland’s tourism industry certainly needs Brits to swap the south of France for the Fife coast, and to fill beds that stayaway foreigners won’t occupy.
All this depends on how long the virus continues to blight the economy and general life, and whether we can make the social distancing policy work. Hotel bookings are said to be up, but not until 2021 and there is no guarantee that they won’t be cancelled if the situation does not improve. After all, wearing a scarf on the beach and avoiding other people for two weeks doesn’t sound much like fun.
We’re certainly not short of committees just now. The Royal Society of Edinburgh has created a 17-member group to look at post-Covid Scotland. That’s in addition to the government’s own advisory group. Some individuals sit on both, which suggests there is either a shortage of wisdom or an unwillingness to extend the scope of available knowledge.
Let’s just hope the chaps in the Fife lab can help us out.