By Stuart Patrick

Over the weekend the chief executives of Chambers of Commerce across the United Kingdom sent a letter to the Prime Minister arguing for a better strategy to tackle the virus and keep our economy open. That letter is just as relevant to the Scottish Government, not least because the government’s own Higgins Report specifically raised concerns that relationships between government and business were already poor – even before we entered the winter wave.

The letter sets out five tests which the Chambers of Commerce are suggesting should be met each time the governments seek to increase economic restrictions throughout the winter, improving relationships with business.

Are the restrictions evidence-based and targeted effectively? Hospitality businesses were not convinced that the evidence produced clearly demonstrated the link between increased cases and hospitality businesses that had taken every step to follow the government guidance on safe operations. Nor is it obvious why in some parts of the UK, where tougher restrictions have been applied, some businesses like restaurants are closed whilst in others they are open. Greater co-ordination between the UK Government, devolved administrations and local councils is essential.

Are the restrictions clear and do businesses have time to prepare? Creating confusion over the definitions of cafes and restaurants and giving businesses only 48 hours’ notice, with no prior consultation, is not a great way to build confidence and support for the measures being introduced. Businesses unlucky enough to have bought in fresh produce just before the announcement will have lost most of that stock.

Is support for businesses commensurate with the impact upon them? Any company that is required to close deserves adequate financial support, not least to avoid substantial redundancies. The job support scheme and the small business grants are not meeting that test. We should be reverting to the job retention scheme model established in July, along with rolling waves of cash grant support for small and medium-sized enterprises. The basic structure of support packages must be clear for 12 months ahead and should take into account supply chain businesses and those which are not being closed but are inevitably suffering reduced demand from restrictions.

Will the time that restrictions are in place be used to significantly improve the Test, Trace and Isolate – or in Scotland, the Test and Protect – system? This is perhaps the most important question to answer. Hospitality businesses have in most cases been gathering the data as asked but it is not obvious that the scale of testing, the speed of response and the effectiveness of isolation were anywhere near enough to control the virus spread. The letter offers several proposals for business to help the governments make better progress.

Is there a clear process for increasing and decreasing restrictions? We will find out this week whether the 16 days’ closure of businesses across the Central Belt will be amended. It will help if the evidence for this kind of decision is transparent and accessible. Members are asking us whether we think the measures will be lifted and, of course, we have to say we have no idea.

No business leader is denying that the choices facing our political leadership are unenviable. That alone however is not preventing a gradual decline in the trust and confidence businesses have in the decision-making process. I am having far more conversations this month with Chamber members who are reluctantly making redundancy decisions. Unemployment is inevitably going to affect thousands of families in the coming weeks but if governments can address the five tests there is still hope that we can reverse at least some of those decisions.

Stuart Patrick is chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce