01 Dec 2021
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
There is a depressing familiarity to Omicron’s arrival. The early reports, the downbeat scientific assessments, the press briefings, the fresh case discoveries and the re-emergence of restrictions. Even the obligatory disagreements between the UK Government and the devolved administrations are back.
There was relief amongst Chamber members on Tuesday last week as the First Minister decided to opt in favour of the business community in her decision not to extend vaccine passports. Allowing the use of lateral flow testing as an alternative was also welcome. But, such is the nature of this crisis, you can almost guarantee good news is followed by bad.
I spent time last week with Chamber members operating independent businesses in the city centre and the feedback could hardly be more downbeat. Several outlets are confirmed as permanently closed while others are fervently hoping for a decent Christmas season. That hope is now at serious risk.
To be fair to our political leaders, while the Omicron story line is familiar, there is much that our scientists can’t yet say about its nature and so finding the balance between over and under-reaction looks increasingly difficult. On the face of it, the international travel constraints, the call to employers for greater use of home working and the encouragement of increased lateral flow testing look proportionate. Family Christmas plans do not need to be changed.
Indeed, the recognition that lateral flow testing has a much more important role to play at this stage in the crisis could be an important step. If, as seems likely, there is no spike in cases arising from COP26, perhaps the requirement on all delegates to carry out daily lateral flow testing has proven its effectiveness. The City of Glasgow remains near to the foot of the local authority table for weekly case rates per 100,000, with only the island authorities showing better results.
The Scottish and Welsh governments’ public letter to the Prime Minister on Monday asks for confirmation that the Treasury will fund financial business support should tougher measures be required in the weeks ahead. But for many businesses the damage will already be happening. Travel businesses are obviously under pressure again and hotels with occupancy rates in Glasgow city centre already down at 30% for December are likely to feel the impact as well.
City-centre hospitality and retail businesses will also be worried. The call to employers to maximise home working may not have a dramatic effect in Glasgow since the office occupancy rate was already under 10%. However, business at the weekend and at nights was recovering much faster than during office working hours and the concern must be whether this will go into reverse. COP26 had already chased customers away and Omicron could do the same.
Omicron’s timing is as bad as it could be. While we’re told that Christmas household plans remain safe, for businesses that rely on Christmas for a hefty share of their annual turnover and cash flow, the season is clearly not one single day.
The scientists advise that it will take a few weeks for the evidence to accumulate on the severity of the Omicron threat. Those are of course the critical weeks for Christmas business.
The First Minister asks for greater use of lateral flow testing if we are planning to mix socially, implying a determination to carry on much closer to normal than with previous announcements. While this is welcomed, it would be no surprise if Scots decide to be cautious and reduce their plans nonetheless. The Finance Secretary could helpfully make some last-minute adjustments to her budget to help affected businesses through the winter.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 1 December 2021