A WEEK is a long time in politics, as former prime minister Harold Wilson famously said.

For those who earn their living from the Scottish hospitality trade, it is a phrase that can equally be applied, with crushing relevance, to their own sphere of work.

The unexpected success of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme during August gave the industry a reminder of what ‘normal’ trading conditions look like after a devastating year caused by coronavirus.

Millions of diners the length and breadth of the UK took advantage of the generous discount offered by the initiative, filling bars and restaurants and generating enough business to allow some operators to bring staff back from furlough. It gave hope, however brief, of a brighter future.

Now the offer has ended, and with the peak of the staycation season passed and the furlough scheme about to expire, the Indian summer the industry enjoyed has been replaced by fears of a long, hard winter.

READ MORE: Opinion: Scott Wright: Could Eat Out to Help Out scheme be extended at make or break point for Scottish hospitality sector?

The depth of the malaise facing the industry was laid bare in new research published this week by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) trade body, which revealed that as many as 12,500 jobs could be lost because of the drop in business arising from the pandemic. It is a staggering prospect which, if the worst fears are realised, would see around one-quarter of the 50,000 jobs in the industry wiped out.

Pessimism, understandably, weighed heavily in the responses to the large-scale survey, with 45 per cent of business owners saying they do not expect a return to “any sort of normal trading” until a vaccine is found. And your guess is as good as mine as to when that will be, especially given the news that the Oxford vaccine trial has been suspended.

At the heart of the problem for the licensed sector is the lack of visibility over its trading potential in the coming months, twinned with the withdrawal of government support in the shape of the job retention scheme that until now has preserved thousands of jobs.

Given the changing nature of the virus, it seems almost impossible to forecast how busy businesses will be and, as a result, how many jobs can be saved.

READ MORE: Scottish beer giant underlines 'unshakeable' belief in pubs as it hits expansion trail

We may have moved on from the comprehensive lockdown that the UK entered in March as the pandemic took hold, but rates of coronavirus infection are on the march, and to worrying levels.

Measures have been put in place by the Scottish Government in recent weeks to limit household gatherings in large parts of Scotland in an attempt to suppress the resurgent infection.

Barring a major lockdown in Aberdeen in August, Scottish ministers have until now held back from imposing further restrictions on pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels. But, given the unfolding situation in England, where hospitality venues in the Greater Manchester town of Bolton are now being restricted to takeaway operations, and social gatherings across the country are to be limited to no more than six people, there are fears similar action could be on the way in Scotland if infection rates are not suppressed.

“It has been a concern since the lockdown was lifted,” said Scottish licensed trade veteran Paul Waterson this week when asked if he felt a renewal of restrictions was likely. “Given all the talk about another spike, it (the outlook) is very pessimistic.

“Our survey showed 45% of people do not believe they will get back to trading normally until they find a vaccine, but it is not looking like that is on the horizon. It will not be this side of the [new] year.”

Business owners in the industry will currently be wrestling with some big decisions. With the furlough scheme on course to end next month, and the UK Government seemingly unwilling to countenance an extension for specific sectors, despite the impossible situation industries such as hospitality find themselves in, heavy redundancies seem inevitable.

READ MORE: Opinion: Scott Wright: Staycation hopes are fading fast for Scotland’s battered tourism industry

Mr Waterson, who makes a compelling case for furlough to be extended for the hospitality sector, said while there may be some “winners” who are able to adapt to the challenge of trading with Covid lurking in the background, “the vast majority of people are struggling”. He added: “When furlough ends it is going to be difficult for people to keep staff.”

In some cases, this will mean staff who have been very loyal to employers over many years, and who have built up specialist knowledge and skills, whether they are chefs, mixologists, sommeliers or front-of-house managers, will lose their jobs. And that in turn will have a reductive effect on the level of service and experience both locals and visitors to Scotland have come to expect, following years of heavy investment by licensed operators.

There is a very real risk, then, of hospitality experiencing a profound talent drain, a prospect that faces other sectors, too, amid these worrying times.

John Geddes, corporate affairs director of John Menzies, outlined those very same fears recently, when presenting the case for the UK Government to provide temporary subsistence for the aviation services industry when furlough ends. If action is not taken to maintain these jobs, Mr Geddes said, then the skilled people who hold them could be lost to other sectors forever.

With summer behind us, and the traditionally quieter autumn and winter months on the horizon for the hospitality industry, operators will rightly be focusing on preserving cash, hoping beyond hope that infection rates will fall to ensure some level of trade continues.

There may be some businesses, across the wider hospitality and tourism sector, now contemplating closing for the winter, with fingers crossed that by the time the spring of 2021 comes around the outlook will appear different.

But even that comes with a risk. As experienced operators will attest, it takes time to build up trading momentum and customer loyalty, not to mention contacts with suppliers such as tour companies which can bring business your way. Close now and you could almost be starting again from scratch.

It is worth acknowledging the bright spots, though. There are hospitality businesses which have successfully transitioned into online offers. A few are even in expansion mode, such as Innis & Gunn, which recently opened its latest Taproom in Leith. Chief executive Dougal Sharp, who declared his “unshakeable” belief in the future of UK pubs, highlighted the “turnover-based rental deal” struck with the landlord as key in his decision to take on the premises. If the industry is going to thrive again, new approaches such as this are going to be essential.