AFTER enduring months of lockdown, Scottish glances have been cast enviously south of the Border this week.

Thanks to Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, people in England have been meeting friends for drinks in beer gardens and mooching around their favourite clothes stores since Monday. Some were so pleased with their new-found freedom they were content to enjoy fry-ups in the cold and rain, as one tabloid newspaper reported.

Here in Scotland, we have to wait until April 26 before such freedoms can be sampled again, though First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did bring some cheer yesterday by lifting the ban on travel across the country from this Friday.

Business groups are now agitating for a quicker exit from restrictions in Scotland, with many angry the departure from lockdown is taking place more quickly in England. This is understandable.

But in the context of lockdowns that have now spanned many gruelling months, it is not too long to wait now, albeit hospitality will have to operate on a restricted basis initially, and there is still no sign of when nightclubs and live music venues can expect to open again.

What will be common across Scotland and England is that when people are finally unleashed again, they will encounter high streets and shopping malls that are pockmarked by the ravages of the pandemic.

READ MORE: Scottish National Investment Bank ‘should fund’ revival of Covid-ravaged high streets

In retail, the roll-call of businesses that have either gone to the wall or have severely downsized since coronavirus came to dominate our daily lives is sad and distressing. It also leaves us facing big questions as to how we can fill the void they have left.

Debenham’s, Arcadia Group, Thorntons, Oasis and Warehouse are among a host of big names that have failed in recent months, taking hundreds of stores down with them.

The failure of Debenham’s alone has put as many as 12,000 jobs at risk.

The famous department store chain will cease to exist as a bricks and mortar retailer when its last 100 or so stores shutter following a final closing down sale in May – a sad chapter to end a 243 year old retail story. (The Debenham’s name will live on as an online brand after its intellectual property assets were acquired by boohoo group in a £55 million deal).

The months of enforced closure deemed necessary to suppress the virus are widely acknowledged to have turbo-charged the deep structural change that was already in train across the retail sector, driven to a large extent by the rise of online shopping.

The tidal wave of failure has had a devastating effect on jobs and town centre vitality, as thousands of outlets have closed for the last time. Redundancies have spiralled into the hundreds of thousands and continue to rise. And business failure on the high street has sadly not been confined to retail. Indeed, it seems inevitable that people will encounter scores of shuttered pubs, restaurants, cafes and sandwich shops when they are entitled to be out and about more freely again.

READ MORE: Scott Wright: Debenhams’ demise is a sad chapter in story of high street

For while consumers eagerly await the gradual reopening of hospitality in Scotland from April 26, it would seem naïve to expect that every business will have survived the harsh months of lockdown.

How could that not be the case, given that city centre businesses, for example, will have gone without the lifeblood of office workers for the last 12 months? Consumers are likely to find that many parts of town and city centres have a ghostly feel when they return, in some cases for the first time in a year, and not least because large parts of the working population will continue to carry out their jobs at home.

The closure of the John Lewis department store in Aberdeen, a decision which met with public outcry when it was announced last month, will leave a gaping hole in the Granite City that will not be easily filled. The same can be said of the closure of Debenham’s stores and many other big-name retailers in towns and cities around Scotland.

Moreover, while retailers in Scotland prepare to open their doors again, and are rightly looking forward to doing what they do best, they could be forgiven for a feeling a sense of trepidation.

Johnson may have proclaimed that this latest exit from lockdown is “irreversible” but can any politician really say that with certainty?

The UK is undoubtedly reaping the success of its vaccination programme, with 32 million people now having received a first jab and 7.6 million a second. People aged between 45 and 50 are now being offered the vaccine in England, bringing a further boost to morale.

READ MORE: Monday Interview: Edinburgh recruitment chief finds silver linings to a tumultuous year

However, concerns continue to be expressed that the country could be hit with a third wave of infections later this year. Should that be the case, there is the possibility that further trading restrictions could be imposed later in the year, a chilling prospect not just for businesses but for citizens who have sacrificed so much in the last year too.

Retail giant Frasers Group has warned it will make further provisions in anticipation of further restrictions.

Regardless of such fears, it is vital that building blocks are put in place now to help ensure our town and city centres have a vibrant future when the scourge of coronavirus is finally behind us.

It is probably a naïve hope, but the issue really does deserve to be placed front and centre of the debate when campaigning for May’s Scottish election resumes, following its suspension due to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.

There is no shortage of good ideas to chew on, that’s for sure.

A major report published in February, entitled A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres, advanced lots of interesting proposals to help revitalise our urban centres, including a suggestion to amend the value-added tax (VAT) system to encourage investment in regenerating buildings. The report called for a debate around the concept of a digital tax to help level the playing field between bricks and mortar and online retailers.

The Federation of Small Businesses, meanwhile, has called for the new Scottish National Investment Bank to fund projects that would make new uses of vacant buildings. It echoed a call made in the A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres report, which floated the idea of a strategic acquisition fund to help local businesses and community groups take ownership of and develop vacant units.

In short, there is plenty of original thinking out there that could help forge a new and viable future for our towns and cities. But there is no time to waste.