8. Changes affecting business that have been subject to restrictions or closure
There was widespread discussion about how to support businesses and workers that have been subject to restrictions or closure in Scotland during the pandemic. Many expressed concerns around the long-term damage done to businesses and the economy, and offered ideas on practical steps that could be taken to support businesses. Others focussed on concerns around unemployment, furlough schemes, and the need to provide protections to workforces at this time. Many respondents offered ideas and suggestions on assistance that could be provided to particular sectors (including construction, manufacturing, housing, transport and tourism).
However, while ideas around support, innovation, and practical steps to encourage businesses to reopen were popular among many respondents, there remained debate about:
- which businesses should be allowed to open now and which should be allowed to reopen sooner than others (on the basis that they can guarantee safe social distancing)
- the level of 'acceptable risk' that should be allowed in workplaces, and how Scotland's economic interests should be balanced with the health of its population
Practical steps on reopening businesses
There was consensus among many that if a business can operate in a 'safe' way then they should be allowed to open. Equally, if they cannot make these guarantees they should not.
Most ideas on the practical steps to reopen businesses focused on industries that involve face-to-face interactions between customers and sellers or service providers, as well as among customers (e.g. tourism, hospitality, retail, sports and leisure, beauty industry, housing market). These ideas tended to focus on restricting the number of possible interactions between customers in business establishments by:
- limiting the number of people allowed to enter at one time, possibly facilitated by technology (e.g. prior bookings that would also minimise social contact while queuing)
- ensuring physical distance is kept (e.g. situating tables in restaurants at appropriate distance)
- increasing available space (e.g. allowing small businesses to operate outdoors and pedestrianising streets to enable that)
- rigorous hygiene practices including the use of PPE (by customers and staff alike) and supply of disinfectants at entry
- cancellation of group events (e.g. group classes in gyms)
Some felt that non-public facing workplaces, in construction and manufacturing in particular, could reopen more easily with some social distancing and perhaps the use of face masks. There was a view that these workplaces are used to complying with Health and Safety regulations and often have health and safety officers so they are well positioned to follow any Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines that may be required.
There was also a suggestion that, at present, there is a lack of clarity among businesses as to which of them should be closed and which can stay open (with safe distancing in place). It was thought that many businesses that were currently closed could benefit from an advice line or business FAQ service, and for clear guidance to be provided to owners.
"I know a lot of businesses, particularly SMEs, have closed because of government messaging. Social distancing can be implemented at lots of workplaces that aren't obviously falling into the 'essential' category. Owners have shut down because they think they are being asked to, when actually they could still be working, and employing, with small simple changes to ensure safety. It penalises those people who are responsible, and who want to do the right thing, but who maybe don't have access to government or industry association advice. These businesses should be supported and enabled to continue. Maybe an advice line or a business FAQ to help?"
Support to workers and businesses
Respondents raised concerns about job security and the ending of the furlough scheme. Many felt that the furlough scheme was a 'lifesaver' and expressed a desire to see it extended.
"I've read many articles anticipating that the chancellor is preparing the furlough scheme to wind down from July. It scares me. I'm afraid if my employer makes me redundant as soon as the scheme ends. The scheme should extend until the economy comes back to normal when finding another job could happen."
Echoing such feelings of uncertainty, a number of respondents expressed concern about the future of the furlough scheme in the context of possible divergence between the UK Government and the Scottish Government's approaches. There were worries about what happened in a scenario where the UK furlough scheme was discontinued due to restrictions being lifted by the UK Government, but where restrictions in Scotland remained.
Contributors welcomed that the scheme covered wages to up to 80%, but it was suggested that if the contribution were to drop this would bring about hardship.
"I employ part time staff. If furlough goes down to less than 80% most of these staff would be better off on universal credit."
Some also called for various types of restrictions or conditions being applied to furlough schemes, both in terms of workers and employers. In terms of employers, it was suggested "the very rich" should be prevented from making use of the scheme as "they can clearly afford to sustain payments for a number of weeks/months."
Other key themes that were discussed in relation to supporting workers and businesses included:
- Widening the net of key workers - A number of respondents felt that restrictions on industries could be lifted gradually by slowly expanding the definitions of 'key workers' to include more and more jobs.
- Protecting returning employees - Concerns were raised about employees returning to unsafe working conditions. There was a view that returning employees should have a safe avenue to share and report any concerns they might have about their employer failing to adhere to safe practices.
- Supporting smaller businesses - There were calls for local businesses to be supported. It was felt that smaller enterprises were likely to be financially vulnerable in the current pandemic, but were also likely to be relied on by many - particularly in remote locations.
- Learning from businesses - Some suggested that the Scottish Government should liaise with businesses that have remained open and learn from them about what is feasible.
- Valuing key workers - A number of respondents expressed general appreciation and support for the NHS and key workers in general.
- Concern about public transport - There was some concern about the impact on public transport and a potential rise in the R number if large amounts of workers were returning to work. However, others were more optimistic, feeling that specific measures could be applied to reduce the risk of travel by train or bus. These included implementing clear distancing zonal areas (like supermarkets), encouraging staggered commuting times, and using technology to allow people to understand when services are likely to be quiet.
Views on support: considered by industry
There was much discussion about specific action that could be offered to different sectors of industry that have been impacted by the pandemic across Scotland. Contributors debated particular challenges faced by different sectors and explored potential solutions to a range of issues. Industries discussed included construction, manufacturing, housing, transport, tourism, the beauty industry, gyms and other leisure facilities, garden centres, dentists, and charity shops. A detailed summary of views on support for individual industries is provided in Annex A.