ONE comment that has really resonated in recent days in the context of the challenge of reopening economies from lockdowns implemented to save many thousands of lives amid the coronavirus crisis came from the head of Venice shopkeepers’ association Confesercenti.

Cristina Giussani, in comments published across the world from Taiwan and Jakarta to South America and Europe, mused over whether Venice’s cafes and restaurants should open for “seagulls and pigeons” given the utter lack of tourists.

It is only a few months since the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic hit Italy but it feels like much longer ago, with how things were before seeming like a distant memory. The unfolding horror of the situation in Italy was a harbinger of what was to come, and has now transpired, in much of the rest of Europe, including the UK, and in many other countries around the world.

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The easing of the lockdown in Italy in recent weeks has provided a glimmer of hope as everyone wonders how things get back to some kind of normality in a world in which there is very understandably a great fear of a second wave of Covid-19, particularly in those countries which have already seen infection rates peak.

However, the Italian experience of attempting to return slowly to something resembling normality has, in spite of some uplifting moments and stories, underlined the huge challenges of reopening major parts of an economy that were shut down completely or much reduced as the crisis developed.

While a vaccine may change things, the fact of the matter is that, for the time being, businesses and consumers will be operating in a very different world from that before lockdowns.

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There are the obvious financial and economic challenges. It remains difficult to envisage with any precision how consumers will react on the way back to something hopefully resembling normality. However, it is hard to escape the feeling that many will be extremely cautious.

In a UK context, the hundreds of thousands of workers who have already lost their jobs face particularly challenging times. With millions of UK workers having been furloughed, the surge in unemployment, and a spate of huge redundancy announcements from major companies in recent days and weeks, the backdrop looks very difficult indeed.

The UK Government’s massive furlough scheme has been aimed at trying to minimise dislocation from what is a protracted but nevertheless temporary lockdown, and we must all continue to hope that this continues to limit the pain of the huge economic upheaval.

Companies continue to have a huge responsibility in avoiding any knee-jerk move towards a short-term response. It remains to be seen whether those with deep-enough pockets to do so will have the necessary patience and vision for the current situation. Hopefully, they can avoid the temptation to revert to typical cost-cutting behaviour and look through these exceptional circumstances to the other side for the good of themselves, their employees and the broader economy.

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What is evident from Ms Giussani’s comments, and the experience of huge numbers of businesses in Italy and many other countries, is that we are facing a painstaking road ahead. The only obvious catalyst to change this picture would be early success with a vaccine, followed by rapid roll-out, but it remains difficult to read the runes on this front.

As things stand the road back will be particularly difficult, as we know, for businesses and sectors that will struggle most to adapt to a world of social-distancing.

The airline sector has been laid low by the crisis and, as well as facing a hugely challenging task in changing business models for social-distancing, it is even less in control of its own destiny than other industries. The outlook for international travel depends not only on Covid-19 infection rates but on whatever moves on quarantining overseas visitors are put in place by governments around the world and how long these remain.

Of course, restaurants and cafes, in Venice and in so many other places around the world, will also be affected by practicalities around overseas visitors as well as social-distancing.

The tourism sector in Scotland, like its counterparts in countries around the globe, is facing an extremely challenging future.

However, even those parts of the economy that have been or will be among the first to reopen in various countries are facing significant challenges.

On the domestic front, business organisations in Scotland and across the UK have called for clear and detailed guidance for firms as they reopen. This will be so important on so many levels, crucially in terms of ensuring the safety of employees but also in the context of providing those who own and run businesses with the reassurance they need and with sufficient information to plan for the future. There have been stories of good and bad behaviour from those running businesses amid this crisis. However, it is important not to form an impression from the albeit sometimes demoralising negative stories that failure by business leaders to do the right thing is a very widespread thing. Most business owners and leaders are at the current juncture focused on the safety and well-being of their staff as they work out how they can reopen and continue to provide valuable employment and create wealth.

The signs are that, overall, the UK Government and the administrations of devolved nations are working hard to provide the guidance at each stage. This may not always come as fast as some would like, but this is an unprecedented situation and there is no pre-existing rule book for the world of social-distancing. And it is so important to get it right first time given what is at stake.

Not much is clear at the moment in terms of what the future holds. But what will be very important, in a general sense, is that support continues for businesses, as we work our way through this crisis, from government and the banks. And individuals will require support from their employers. All of this will be of benefit to everyone, in terms of making the economic recovery as fast and strong as possible. It is in everyone’s interests to keep companies trading and minimise unemployment, especially given the potential for chain reactions.

Flexibility in the furlough scheme to allow a phased return of employees and part-time working will be crucial, as will keeping the programme going for as long as is needed and not trying to force companies that are unable to contribute to the cost of it to do so.

Under this scheme, the UK Government pays 80 per cent of the wages and salaries of furloughed employees, up to £2,500 a month.

Many, many thousands of businesses in Scotland and across the UK, having stopped operations and furloughed staff amid the coronavirus crisis, are now at the stage of making detailed plans about reopening. While this will be a long and painstaking process, at least we are at the stage where the reopening of major parts of the economy is getting under way.

Firms are also having to think carefully about how they manage their finances. Good availability of credit will be crucial to allowing businesses to restart and sectors to reopen when they are told by government that it is safe to do so.

In this context, it was interesting to hear the thoughts of Marcus Paine, who has built up the Hutton Stone business in the Scottish Borders.

Mr Paine has highlighted the challenges of dealing with stalled cash flow for small and medium-sized businesses, such as his family firm, as they resume activity after the lockdown. Like many other business owners, Mr Paine was forced to furlough staff and rely on government support when the UK moved to lockdown in March.

He said: “Government support has been immense, but the banks have been very slow to the table for SMEs like us.”

His remarks are likely to resonate with many businesses, especially small and medium-sized firms, across many sectors.

Hutton Stone, a significant employer in the Borders with 40 staff, supplies sandstone masonry to the new-build and restoration construction sectors.

Mr Paine, who is president of Construction Industry Coronavirus (CICV) Forum member The Stone Federation (GB), demonstrated the challenges with detailed figures from his own business. The CICV Forum was formed in early March in response to the Covid-19 crisis to bring together senior representatives from trade and professional associations in the construction sector.

The businessman said: “When we restart, let’s say for example on June 1, we’ll instantly see our fixed overhead shoot up to £125,000 a month, of which £85,000 represents our wage bill, plus HP (hire purchase), finance and ancillary costs of around £40,000.

“We’d then expect to cut and supply stone for a month and invoice our customers at the month-end. And if our customers are good payers, we would expect a payment from them at the end of the following month. However, that means we would have incurred at least £250,000 worth of costs before our best payers might pay.”

Noting a “further month of delays in payment” could take Hutton Stone to around £370,000 of such costs, with additional quarrying expenses also having been incurred by this point, Mr Paine said: “That is a huge sum for any SME to finance in working capital and provides a sense of the level of focus we will need to apply to the issue of restarting carefully and with great caution.”

He highlighted the option of a staged return to work.

Mr Paine might be a long way from Venice. And his business is in a very different sector from that of a Venetian cafe or restaurant owner.

However, what is highlighted by his comments, and those of Ms Giussani, is that businesses operating in a vast array of sectors in so many countries around the world face challenges they have not encountered before.

There will be a raft of different solutions to the various problems faced by specific sectors and companies within them, and hopefully governments can learn from what is happening in other countries.

Some of the solutions will be common, such as government support and sufficient credit from banks, and this assistance will be crucial for both businesses and households. Lots of things are going to take time, and patience will be required. Flexibility and the ability to recognise that businesses and individuals must be assisted in rebuilding after a crisis that was not of their own making will also be vital, for the good of all.