Coronavirus is deeply impacting our society and casting a shadow over the economy. As the Economy Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, has said, its an economic as well as a public health emergency.

Retail continues to be at the forefront of the economic turmoil. As the country’s largest private sector employer, it provides 240,000 jobs directly with many more in the supply chain. Half of the industry saw an unprecedented and immediate surge in demand in the initial weeks of the crisis, and all the challenges that come with that, particularly in pharmacy and food retailing. The other half - including fashion, furniture, and food-to-go - has seen demand plunge following the implementation of restrictive public health measures.

Retailers have become adept at contingency planning of late, given the ‘Beast from the East’ and the threat (twice) of a no-deal Brexit. The resilience the industry has shown in the last four weeks is testament to that work – even if it has tested every fibre of every retailer.

To their credit, the UK and Scottish governments have moved swiftly to back businesses dealing with the unfolding situation. The scrapping of business rates for retailers for the next twelve months represents a vital shot in the arm for a sector facing widespread shop closures and enormous uncertainty. This big, bold move – coupled with the job retention scheme and loan finance support on offer - provides a cashflow and confidence boost at a crucial time.

Scottish ministers have responded adroitly to our representations on other fronts too. They moved with breakneck speed to lift restrictions on the timing of deliveries of food to shops and warehouses, and to suspend the carrier bag levy on home deliveries of groceries. This is helping to speed up the replenishment of shop shelves and to get deliveries onto doorsteps. The latter will become increasingly key as self-isolation increases.

The scale and depth of this package of measures can’t have been easy decisions for our politicians to take. However, they are certainly necessary.

While these economic interventions are the right decisions for now, both the UK and Scottish administrations may have to go further. Lingering concerns remain that otherwise strong and viable mid-sized retailers (which is most) will fall through the gaps between the various loan funding schemes. The short-term outlook also suggests extra measures to support consumer confidence may be necessary.

For many retailers, especially in non-food, these current initiatives won’t offset the absence of income from shoppers, nor ensure their survival. This is compounded by the uncertainty over how long the lockdown of shops will continue, or whether we may see a phased or blanket approach to re-opening.

What is certain is the unavoidable commitments over stock, rents, utility bills and other fixed costs requiring payment imminently. The situation for some is more than just a short-term liquidity problem. Anything other than a temporary shutdown could see them hand back their keys to landlords, with all that means for jobs and the state of our town centres.

The pressures affecting the industry before this crisis meant even the best run firms were under the cosh. Even those who were in reasonable financial health are now drawing up revised cash flow forecasts for the next few months. It’s a remarkably difficult task, with so many imponderables. For many, questions over longer term strategy are for another day.

We are barely a week and half into the lockdown. It’s too early to say that this stage when the shadow over the economy might begin to lift.

By David Lonsdale, Director of the Scottish Retail Consortium