As I See It: Terry Murden
Nicola Sturgeon admits she is nervous about her route map out of lockdown. She is not alone. Success, of course, will be measured according to how well the coronavirus is controlled and the degree to which the public is protected. There is, however, an economic battle to be won and lost with tens of thousands of livelihoods at risk – and with many in business unconvinced by the four-phase return to work programme.
Scotland has been in lockdown longer than any other country, though no one seems to explain why. It has delayed the reopening of construction sites and shops while similar businesses have reopened in England, with no known reports of an uplift in virus affliction. Ms Sturgeon has protected the NHS, though the figures show the NHS is now awash with spare capacity and emergency beds have not been needed.
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing and the First Minister cannot be faulted for being prepared and for ensuring the NHS was not overwhelmed. But the slow return to work programme risks stretching caution to its limits.
No one wants to put workers and customers in any danger, but determining which businesses can and cannot open is puzzling. It is based, essentially, on their ability to social distance, but if it is safe for a shopper to visit a small supermarket or a pharmacy, why not a small specialist shop or gallery which has far fewer daily visitors? If there is no risk in visiting a Dobbies Garden Centre which will have to manage queues and car parking, then why not a high street flower shop which could easily manage an appointments system? If it is safe to fit handles and lay bricks at a building site for a new hospital, how is it unsafe to do the same work on a housing development? Why is it okay to sunbathe in the park surrounded by other people, but unsafe to work in protective clothing in a research laboratory?
I suggested to the First Minister during Monday’s daily briefing that rather than phase the return to work by sector over several weeks, those that can prove they are ready and have the desired health and safety precautions already in place, should be allowed to restart.
Scottish Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton has echoed this sentiment by calling for the reopening of self-catering businesses to be brought forward.
With heavy penalties for failure to meet such standards, including potentially shutting down a business, it would encourage all businesses to act responsibly.
Instead, thousands of businesses have an agonising wait of up to two months before they can restart and many just won’t last that long.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, says that entering phase one of the easing of restrictions will be welcome for many “but the clock for businesses is ticking”. The need for firmer timelines is an increasingly urgent matter for companies across all sectors who still face significant risk if they are not able to open urgently, she says.
Robin Blacklock, chairman of the Scottish Property Federation, added that no one was sure when work would restart on construction sites. As for retail, he said “the emphasis should be on ensuring retail facilities can trade safely, rather than on the size of the property.”
As I argued here recently, Ms Sturgeon is right to protect us all from risk, but she must also consider the potential jobs fall-out resulting from being over-cautious.
Businesses are already looking beyond the rescue phase and towards rebuilding. For that they also require a vision from government over how that can be achieved. It will require a few clear priorities and firm commitments: to investing in infrastructure, public works in general and modernisation. No more shilly-shallying and dithering. Time is crucial and we have to get on with it.