FOR Scottish businesses, last week’s Winter Economic Plan was a rare bit of cheer after yet another period of concerning news.

With Covid-19 infection rates rising, last quarter’s near 20 per cent hit to Scottish GDP and figures showing unemployment in Scotland outpacing the rest of the UK, firms could be forgiven for feeling punch-drunk as each blow knocked confidence and increased uncertainty in equal measure.

One thing that could really boost confidence would be securing an agreement with the European Union (EU), our biggest trading partner. With crucial Brexit negotiations underway, it is worth reiterating that firms cannot be prepared for a chaotic exit while simultaneously dealing with the economic effects of Covid. That message came through loud and clear in our most recent survey, which found almost four in five respondents calling for a deal, compared to just 4% preferring no deal. Around half of firms surveyed also told us that Covid had seriously hampered Brexit planning.

The size of the prize for securing a deal is real. For starters, it would protect jobs under pressure from the pandemic via duty and quota free trade. Meanwhile closer customs cooperation would help to minimise red tape and costs, allowing firms to invest productively. And importantly, it would also ease the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. That would bring vital relief to Scotland’s exporters and our essential financial and professional services sectors.

Going back to the Winter Economic Plan, the biggest relief was clearly the announcement of a successor to the hugely successful Jobs Retention Scheme. Furlough has undoubtedly saved millions of jobs across the UK, but with a cliff edge looming as the scheme was set to be wound-up, anxiety among many businesses was increasing rapidly.

When coupled with an expansive offer that included extending bounceback loans, keeping VAT at 5% for the hospitality sector, and more besides, the UK Government should be commended for taking decisive action. Loan extensions in particular will bring huge relief to businesses facing a cashflow crisis as they head into winter. Firms will also have been encouraged to see further lockdown restrictions followed swiftly by a bold policy response.

Yet the hard truth is that these proposals won’t save every job – not in Scotland, nor elsewhere. This isn’t a like-for-like replacement for furlough and some jobs will undoubtedly fall through the cracks. Sectors like hospitality, retail and tourism – hit so hard by the pandemic – may need further support throughout the coming months. Investment in upskilling and retraining will also be vital as redundancies start to rise.

As we seek to tackle the challenges of the coming weeks and months head-on, we recognise there is no silver bullet that will secure our recovery. Instead we have a series of policy levers, each with the capacity to move us forward an important step. The Chancellor is using those at his disposal. Next in line is securing an all-important agreement with the EU. That will minimise costs and red tape, keep our businesses competitive and free up resources to overcome difficulties ahead.

There is no doubt that these challenges are stark, an unprecedented hat-trick of rebuilding from the first wave of coronavirus, dealing with the resurgence of the virus and preparing for significant changes to the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. Each would be difficult individually, but facing all at once, they feel like an enormous mountain to climb for government and business.

Governments across Europe have shown a level of ambition to fight the pandemic many wouldn't have believed - time to show that same creativity and flexibility on securing a Brexit deal.

Tracy Black is director of CBI Scotland