Nearly a third of Scottish SMEs with growth ambitions for the coming year say their plans will be hampered by a lack of access to skilled staff, according to a new survey out today.

The figures from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) come amid rising concerns that the “pingdemic” is exacerbating labour shortages caused by the outflow of EU workers in the wake of Brexit. It is feared this will hinder economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, with London’s Metropolitan line, retailer Iceland and hospitality group Greene King among those who have had to suspend services or temporarily close outlets because of high numbers of staff being told to self-isolate.

“As the economy has reopened, skills and staff shortages have given firms across Scotland a headache,” said Andrew McRae, Scotland policy chair for the FSB. “Self-isolation rules and a reduction of workers caused by the UK leaving the EU are amongst the factors that have been blamed.

“We know that many smaller firms are looking at new ways of attracting and retaining workers, but policymakers also need to realise that if local firms can’t find the skills they need, then growth and innovation is impossible. That’s why decision-makers in Edinburgh and London need to look at their labour market, skills, and public health policies and ensure they’re geared up for recovery.”

READ MORE: Some critical workers to be exempted from self-isolation rules in Scotland

On Friday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced “very limited” new measures that will allow some workers in “lifeline services and critical national infrastructure” to avoid self-isolation if they have been double-jabbed. This followed guidance issued on Thursday evening by the UK Government in which it listed 16 sectors in which employees could be exempt from self-isolating, again under specific circumstances and only if they have been double-jabbed.

To date, the pingdemic has been more of an English affair as it has been driven across the board by the rising number of infections caused by the Delta variant. A record 618,903 alerts were sent to app users in England and Wales during the week to July 14.

Numbers in Scotland – where about two million people have downloaded the Test and Protect app – are substantially lower but have risen quickly in recent weeks, according to figures from Public Health Scotland. During the week to May 17, just 132 notifications were sent, but by June 28 that had surged to 2,179.

They then peaked at 3,413 before easing back 2,562 in the latest week to July 19, the date Scotland moved to a modified version of Level Zero restrictions. With more people circulating more freely, and the number of new cases remaining high, it is expected that the rise in self-isolation notices will resume.

READ MORE: Who is exempt from self-isolation in Scotland?

The situation has reinforced calls for changes to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), including an increase to the current weekly rate of £96.35, to reduce the financial burden on workers who are told to self-isolate. However, in a move last week condemned by the STUC trade union, the UK Government declared that the pandemic was “not the right time to introduce changes to the rate of SSP or its eligibility criteria”.

Declaring that sick pay is a public health issue, STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer said: “It will often determine whether a worker can self-isolate or not, and that should worry us all.

“For workers to properly follow the current guidance, support must be there for them to do so without falling into debt, missing rent payments or being unable to provide for themselves and their dependants.”

READ MORE: Scottish councils under pressure due to Covid staff shortages as bin collection is suspended

Despite the strains on the labour market, today’s survey from the FSB found that optimism among smaller Scottish firms is at its strongest since the summer of 2015, with the average Scottish business more hopeful about prospects than its UK-wide equivalent for the first time since the third quarter of 2020.

The FSB’s confidence index in Scotland rose to +20.5 in the latest three months from +18.8 in the first quarter of the year. The UK-wide figure fell to +18.6 from +27.3 previously.

However, 64 per cent of Scottish firms reported an increase in running costs compared to this time last year, and more believe their profits will fall, rather than increase, during the next three months.