In February I wrote my introduction for our quarterly review of Scotland’s manufacturing engineering sector, and although coronavirus was definitely on our radar, I clearly underestimated the impact and threat of the global pandemic that was coming.

With 20/20 hindsight, that review contains wince inducing comments about increased optimism, buoyant order books and sober advice to "buckle up for a busy year".

There were some understandable reasons for looking hard for signs of optimism. December 2019 had emptied the tank marked ‘resilience’ on the topic of Brexit, orders and optimism had fallen, and wider questions about climate emergency and the part industry plays in that were front and centre.

Against understandable concerns for many uncertainties, our industry needed a pickup.

Coronavirus has been the absolute opposite, for our sector and across our entire economy, but manufacturing in Scotland has been left in a particularly concerning position due to a divergence in approach by our UK and Scottish governments. Reflecting the sentiments of members I represent, the UK Government has received only criticism of its faithful adherence to a deeply damaging Brexit, so it’s only fair to state that in respect of guidance to manufacturers on coronavirus it’s been helpful, clear and consistent.

It set a list of those businesses who were mandated to close, and as manufacturers what we consistently heard was “stay open, as long as you maintain social distancing.”

Against this the Scottish Government’s mandated position is actually similar; the same list of companies that must shut also applies, and the heart of additional guidance gives four reasons why a company can remain open, with the ability to maintain social distancing one of the four distinct reasons for doing so – an achievable ask for our industry to meet.

After this the divergence starts, as beside the mandated position the Scottish Government has added a moral question, aimed at and owned by employers, as to whether they should remain open, framed around the question of: “is what you do essential?”.

Add to that unhelpful comments by some MSPs on social media and employers are left in an impossible position, as we successfully add unhelpful drama to a crisis.

I believe that the Scottish Government’s intentions are for the right public health reasons, as clearly the more people who stay home, the flatter the curve and the risk of overwhelming the NHS reduces.

But absent of clarity, unintended and potentially damaging consequences arise. Engineering supply chains are complex and multi-tiered, so if you are a manufacturer of pneumatic fittings, is that essential? It is if your customer builds an assembly that their customer uses to build ventilators.

What about cable manufacture, is that essential? Yes, if those are network cables are for the Nightingale or Louisa Jordan Hospitals.

If those companies close in their evaluation of the moral question, is that the intended consequence?

What about the commercial and economic impact of this difference? If an operation in Scotland is one of a number in the UK with an international parent company, how does that look when those plants in the rest of the UK are encouraged to maintain production safely, whilst the Scottish plant is encouraged to do the opposite? In the climb out of the economic impact of this crisis, do we want our Scottish operations to stand out for those reasons?

Potential impact from unintended consequences underlies a concern that any manufacturing capacity lost, is doubly difficult to replace, a historical pattern unfortunately seen time and again. As ever, the solution must be in balance and compromise, and the vast majority of manufacturing company will be operating at drastically reduced capacity to ensure safe working. Anyone who can or must work from home will be doing so, and full advantage is being taken of already spacious work areas to ensure safe working.

In looking forward to a time of recovery, it is essential that we maintain as much of our manufacturing base so that it is there to recover, and support for that from both our Scottish and UK Governments, in chorus, would be welcome.

Paul Sheerin is the chief executive of Scottish Engineering

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