Nicola Sturgeon has said she is prepared to “speed up” the relaxation of tourism restrictions to help firms like Macdonald Hotels, where 1,800 jobs are threatened by Covid-19.
The first minister suggested the easing of coronavirus regulations could be accelerated but only if it was safe to do so, when asked about redundancies at the hotel chain.
At her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said she hoped the Scottish Government’s July 15 opening target for hotels, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions provided some “light at the end of the tunnel” for businesses.
Her remarks came as the Conservatives highlighted new figures showing that thousands of retail, hospitality and tourism businesses had yet to receive Scottish Government support despite applying for Covid-19 grants.
This week Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing set the target which will coincide with the easing of travel restrictions and the beginning of “phase three” of the Scottish Government’s route map out of lockdown.
But in yet another sign of the damage the pandemic is causing to the hospitality industry the announcement coincided with news that all 2,299 people working for Macdonald Hotels Group are to be consulted on redundancies.
The group estimates a total of around 1,800 jobs, at all levels of the business, could potentially be “at risk”.
The pandemic has resulted in the temporary closure of all 31 of the company’s hotels in Scotland and England, including Norwood Hall in Aberdeen, Pittodrie House near Inverurie, the Aviemore Resort and Drumossie, Inverness.
The group is still facing monthly bills of £2 million. Around 200 jobs are under threat at the Crieff Hydro hotel chain.
When asked what specific help the government could offer before the tourist season gets back up and running, Ms Sturgeon said: “The reason we gave an indicative start date for tourism was to allow businesses and the tourism sector to start to plan and to take bookings and start to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
The first minister said she hoped the deadline would help businesses like Macdonald Hotels, which were facing “severe challenges”.
“Hopefully… that will be helpful – not in getting them back to normal straight away but in giving them a planning horizon that they can start to look towards,” the first minister said.
“So, I very much hope and we are absolutely focused on trying to get through this in a way and at a pace that mitigates the kind of job losses that we are hearing consulted about right now.”
When we can we will speed it up – and I desperately want to speed this up as much as possible – but not to the extent that we risk it all going backwards.”
Ms Sturgeon emphasised that restrictions had to be eased safely because it would be “disastrous” otherwise.
But she added: “When we can we will speed it up – and I desperately want to speed this up as much as possible – but not to the extent that we risk it all going backwards.”
Ms Sturgeon continued to stand firm on the two-metre social distancing rule, despite prominent figures like the entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter and the SNP economist Andrew Wilson suggesting it should be eased.
Sir Tom, who is credited with being Scotland’s first billionaire, called for an urgent review of the rule, arguing it was “nonsensical” and would harm the hospitality industry.
The first minister maintained that current scientific advice was that it should stay, although the situation would be kept under review.
Thousands of firms yet to get Covid grants
Meanwhile, the Conservatives picked up on new figures showing 15,722 Scottish retail, hospitality and tourism firms have asked for Scottish Government support but have yet to receive it.
A total of 74,856 grants valuing nearly £850m have been dished out. But a total of 90,578 applications had been made up until June 9.
The number of applications that have yet to succeed has risen by 505 since the previous week. Eighty-three of the 505 increase were recorded in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Moray, Highland, the Western Isles and Northern Isles.
But in Angus, Dundee, Fife and Perth and Kinross the number of applications yet to succeed fell by 24 from 2,481 to 2,457 over the same period.
Tory finance spokesman Donald Cameron said: “There were already concerns among the business community in Scotland that the SNP’s support scheme had stalled.
“These new figures show the whole system is now going backwards. We’re now months into this crisis and still thousands are waiting for cash.”
Mr Cameron added: “So many jobs depend on this money coming through, and those jobs will simply vanish if the SNP government doesn’t get its act together.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is simply not true to say 15,722 businesses are still waiting on support.
“Processing rates are at a high level. Published information understates actual processing rates as it does not reflect where applicants have been rejected because they are ineligible or cases where the local authorities have asked the applicant to submit further information and are awaiting a response – which we understand represent the vast majority of cases where the currently published data infers an application is outstanding.
“We are working closely with local authorities to ensure a fair and consistent treatment of businesses across Scotland.
“These grants are making a real difference to businesses across Scotland and, with the help of our local authority partners, we are ensuring that help gets to where it is needed quickly and with the minimum of bureaucracy.
“Our total package for businesses during this unprecedented economic crisis now totals £2.3 billion and ministers are listening to concerns from businesses as we continue to explore how best to help.”
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