By Scott Wright

LORD Willie Haughey, the high-profile Glasgow entrepreneur, has questioned why central belt pubs have been told to shut their doors while Scottish universities, which have seen major outbreaks of coronavirus, remain open.

The Labour peer and owner of City Facilities Management Holdings acknowledged that dealing with Covid-19 is a “no-win situation” for Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson. But he said the “person in the street” would struggle to understand why the “absolute hotspot” of universities are still open.

He also urged government ministers to sit down with leading business figures in Scotland to start planning the economic recovery from the pandemic now.

Asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the hospitality sector, following the closure of pubs and restaurants in central Scotland last week to suppress infection rates, Lord Haughey said: “They are in a no-win situation, from the Prime Minister to the First Minister. The bit I find difficult is… if we say we are going to work on scientific data [to inform policy], why were the universities not closed last week? Why would you close pubs when the universities have been seen as an absolute hotspot for the virus?

“1,000 kids [testing positively] in one university, 770 in another. This is the bit the average person in the street does not understand. We sit every week and we go: it is great that we are going with the science. But there is no science saying hospitality has anywhere near the infection rate we have seen in universities. The university thing was a blip for everyone, for the UK Government, for the Scottish Government.”

He added: “To be fair, it is not the time to be pointing the finger. What I would like to see is more political collaboration. Covid is not a political football.”

Lord Haughey added his voice to those calling for business to be consulted more on decisions being taken to halt the spread of coronavirus.

And he argues that politicians and business should be meeting regularly now to plan the recovery from the fallout. Lord Haughey, who submitted views to the report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, led by banking veteran Benny Higgins, said: “The economic fallout is going to be substantial. I think we just have to be ready. Don’t wait until that happens. Get engaged with big stakeholders in business so we all can have a plan together [on] how we can get through this. The unemployment figures will frighten people and it will cause great concern to people out there.

“It would be great if we were working behind the scenes at the moment so that we are ready for that economic recovery plan. It would be looking to put some sort of cross-party committee together with big business and small business, the CBI, the Chamber of Commerce, get everybody in the room and just throw everything on the table.”

He added: “We need to be ready for a plan for the economic recovery. If we are not ready, we could just make matters much, much worse.”

Asked if he would like to contribute to such a plan, Lord Haughey said: “If people think I have something to add I would be delighted to put in my tuppence worth.”

Lord Haughey’s comments came as new accounts for City, which employs 14,000 people around the world, show that it turned over more than £1 billion (£1.1bn) for the first time in its 35-year history. Profit before tax climbed to £26.4 million in the year ended December 31, up from £16.7m.

Lord Haughey said City, which has operations in Europe, Asia, Australia and the US, had been “fortunate” amid the pandemic because 90 per cent of its business is in the retail sector, noting that major supermarkets around the world having traded continuously since the crisis erupted. Only 43 of its employees are on furlough, with Lord Haughey hoping that they can be brought back into the fold in some capacity.

He said: “The big story is we are a Scottish company hitting the £1bn turnover mark in revenue. It has taken us 35 years to get there, but we are delighted. The bottom line has grown as well.”

But he added: “For all businesses, if we all get through this, and we all have a semblance of a decent business at the end, and everybody is safe, then I think that will be a result.”

Lord Haughey said forecasts turnover will continue to grow in City’s current financial year, though expects profit levels to be affected by the pandemic.

While much of its recent growth has come from its expansion overseas, Lord Haughey has instructed his senior team to focus more on the UK market this year as a key part of its strategy.

Asked if this was a response to coronavirus, he said: “Everybody’s just got to try harder. All of our senior management have rightly been tied up with our overseas expansion. Now I want a focus on growing our UK business.”