IN normal times, this would be a period of optimism for the hospitality and tourism industry in Scotland.

Sustained good weather throughout spring would have boosted the coffers nicely before summer, when operators would enjoy the spin-off from the influx of tourists, graduation celebrations, outdoor concerts, and football’s European Championships.

Instead, the industry is stuck in the midst of a seemingly endless winter, with no real sign yet of when it can realistically expect to come out of cold storage.

While the UK Government raised the prospect of re-opening “at least some of the hospitality industry” in July, in a confusing briefing by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday evening, Scotland is not quite at that stage yet.

Indeed, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that it would be “catastrophic” for Scotland to alter from current strategy and drop the Stay at Home message at this stage, given the current rate of transmission of the coronavirus north of the Border, it will be a while yet before the Scottish trade gets a sense of when it can re-open the doors.

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It is extremely difficult for any business to endure a protracted period of closure. But, in many ways, the challenge for pubs, hotels, restaurants, wedding venues, tourist attractions and concert halls is more acute.

A huge part of their purpose is to provide platforms for people to come together. They are the perennial backdrop for so many of the big occasions in our lives – be it holidays, birthdays, weddings or even major sporting events. And in villages around Scotland, pubs provide the glue that holds communities together, offering essential human contact as society faces acknowledged problems of loneliness and isolation.

Now hospitality and tourism operators are having to work out how they can continue that role in future, when it is highly likely they will be forced to operate while social distancing measures are observed. As such, it seems very likely that businesses will have to operate with reduced capacity, which will inevitably mean they have less revenue coming in. Investment will no doubt have to be made in physical distancing infrastructure to minimise transmission of coronavirus, and patrons and staff may have to wear face masks. Outlets may also have to upgrade systems to ensure they can accept contactless payments.

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In the meantime, there are more profound challenges. Speaking during a Glasgow Chamber of Commerce webinar on Thursday, VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead was optimistic that there remains strong appetite from international tourists to come to Scotland. But he said the biggest priority in the short term is to ensure as many businesses as possible survive.

Although Mr Roughead was speaking about tourism, his comments can be applied to the wider hospitality industry in Scotland, where trading has come to a virtual stop during the lockdown.

There has been outrage in the industry over the fact huge numbers of businesses were ruled out of receiving emergency grants, effectively because of the decision to use rateable values to assess eligibility.

But there can be no denying the government furlough scheme has been a lifeline. Without the state stepping in to cover 80 per cent of employee wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, the number of job losses caused by the pandemic would have been much higher.

Now, as attention focuses on how businesses can be “weaned off” the scheme (amid unhelpful Tory innuendo that people have become “addicted” to furlough), there has rightly been a call in the hospitality industry for the support to remain until premises are able to re-open.

Russell Imrie, managing director of Queensferry Hotels, was blunt about the implications if the furlough scheme is cut off too early. “There cannot be a cliff edge where the furlough scheme stops,” he said. “If there is, there will be mass unemployment.”

Reports have suggested that UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak will confirm today the furlough scheme will be extended until September, albeit the level of support will be cut to 60%. It is to be hoped the Chancellor has taken into consideration the challenges different industries face in their journeys back from the abyss.