THERE was a good run for FTSE leisure and travel stocks last week, as investors reacted positively to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown in England and the continuing, rapid roll-out of the UK’s vaccination programme.

But while the stock market was pricing in the return of brighter days and consumers flocking back to bars and restaurants, and indeed going on holiday, the reality is the leisure industry faces an extremely challenging and uncertain few months to come.

Anyone doubting the severity of the task facing the sector, shuttered in Scotland since Boxing Day and with no prospect of reopening until mid-April, need only look at events at Mitchells & Butlers.

The pub giant, which has a vast portfolio including the famous Horse Shoe Bar in Glasgow, has taken steps to raise a “critical” £351 million from investors to safeguard its financial stability through to the end of the crisis. The announcement came as the company revealed it has been burning through between £30m and £35m for every four-week period it has been closed since early January.

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The arithmetic facing the wider hospitality sector is as simple as it is stark. The cash that is left in the tank is running out fast, and businesses desperately need infection rates to continue falling sharply to open again.

It is also worth emphasising that while April 12 has been pencilled in for the industry’s initial reopening in England, and two weeks later for Scotland, it is likely to be many months before it is trading at anything like full capacity again.

In Scotland, the framework set out by Nicola Sturgeon last week envisages a move out of level four restrictions into level three from April 26 (though the First Minister later said that some areas may move straight down to level two, depending on infection rates). In level three, hospitality outlets can welcome customers again, but they are not permitted to sell alcohol and their doors have to close by 6pm.

Moreover, people in level three areas are still not allowed to travel outside their local authority boundaries, meaning hospitality venues can only count on local custom. In addition, this easing of lockdown is conditional on infection rates of coronavirus continuing to move in the right direction: any reversal and lockdown could beckon again.

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With the journey to full reopening likely to take several months, therefore, it is crucial that businesses, not just in hospitality and leisure but in retail too, continue to receive support as trading levels are gradually stepped up.

Helping firms avoid a “cliff edge” that could occur if grants are abruptly withdrawn while they are allowed to operate at only a fraction of their potential is surely essential to their survival, and for the preservation of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

All eyes, therefore, will be on Chancellor Rishi Sunak when he delivers the Budget tomorrow. Will he show that he is cognisant of the challenges facing business by providing ongoing support? Or will he choke off the funding as he looks to repair the UK’s battered finances?

In reports over the weekend, the Chancellor signalled that he is minded to provide some continuing support in the Budget.

The Treasury said that shops, pubs, restaurants, clubs, hotels and gyms will be among nearly 700,000 companies south of the Border that will be given cash grants of up to £18,000 under a £5 billion package to help get them back on their feet. And it confirmed yesterday that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive a further £794m to distribute to firms, via the Barnett formula, as a result of the move.

Stuart Mackinnon, at the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said further grants are needed for firms north of the Border, adding that “flexibility” is required to ensure suppliers are supported as well. This is needed in addition to business rates relief, he argued.

“There are myriad [grant] schemes,” Mr Mackinnon told The Herald. “The question is whether there is enough for firms to get back on their feet as lockdown is eased.”

Equally, Budget observers will be looking for clarity from Mr Sunak on the future of furlough.

For nearly a year now, the job support scheme has protected many thousands of jobs. Removing furlough before firms have a fighting chance of survival would be a devastating blow to them and their staff.