By Karen Peattie

SCOTTISH food and drink wholesalers have been left with millions of pounds’ worth of stock that they are unable to supply due to sudden cancellations sweeping the hospitality sector amid the Omicron outbreak.

While restaurants and hotels have been plagued with a raft of cancellations of Christmas lunches and parties in recent days, the wholesalers that supply the hospitality sector face financial uncertainty with many braced for the reintroduction of further Covid restrictions.

Colin Smith, chief executive of the trade body the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA), said that the “uncertainty” of the current situation and “mixed messaging” from the Scottish Government had created fear and anxiety among wholesalers, particularly those whose businesses supply mainly the hospitality and tourism sectors. “As soon as the Government ‘advised’ people to cancel work parties the cancellations started with the phones at restaurants and hotels across Scotland ringing off the hook, causing maximum impact not just to them but to the wholesalers supplying them – their phones also started ringing,” said Mr Smith.

“Our members are taking the financial stock risk for hospitality venues by carrying twice as much stock as normal – worth millions of pounds at this time of year – only to have customers cancelling orders.

“It’s absolutely devastating for the food and drink supply chain which, in recent months, has also had to endure product supply shortages and price increases from manufacturers and importers as a consequence of Brexit along with a chronic shortage of wholesale staff available for warehouse picking and drivers for making deliveries.”

Mr Smith noted that while his association had worked hard with the Government to help it understand the wholesale sector and its key role as the “wheels of the food and drink industry”, it was crucial that the Government considered wholesale as part of the wider tourism industry.

“The key thing from the wholesale industry’s perspective is for the Scottish Government to build on the relationship and understanding they now have of the wholesale sector,” he added.

“We’re specifically asking them to look at establishing a wholesale sector strategy and heading into 2022 we need to be confident that the Government considers wholesale as inextricably linked to the hospitality, tourism and leisure industry – with support given to those businesses equally being given to the wholesale supply chain sitting behind them.”

Jim Rowan, managing director of Dunns Food and Drinks, a leading supplier to Scotland’s hospitality businesses based in Lanarkshire, has called for more certainty around what measures will be taken and what support will be provided.

While acknowledging the significance of the threat to public health from the Omicron variant, Mr Rowan said that comments from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at a Covid update last Friday – which echoed advice by Public Health Scotland to cancel Christmas parties – “signalled another catastrophic blow to hospitality in Scotland”.

He noted: “Without financial support the industry simply cannot afford a return to significant lockdown measures, and we wait nervously to see what is to come.”

In Glasgow, Barbara Henderson, director of Lomond: The Wholesale Food Co, agreed with Mr Rowan that the uncertainty facing the sector was the biggest concern.

“It is the fear of the unknown,” she said, pointing out that her family business was not so reliant on foodservice as many other wholesalers.

However, she warned that a further lockdown would see the company’s turnover take a significant hit and without financial support there could be redundancies.