By Colin Wilkinson

SCOTLAND’s pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and other accommodation providers have been living on a knife-edge for months and moving parts of west and central Scotland into tier four is the last straw – it effectively signals permanent closure for many of them.

Hospitality outlets in 11 local authority areas are now closed for three weeks. For people in tier three who can still visit pubs, bars, restaurants and other outlets, the experience isn’t exactly appealing when they can’t even enjoy a lunchtime glass of wine. Is it worth making the effort to go out at all? Probably not.

Even before Tuesday’s announcement in Parliament by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, many operators in levels two and three areas had already taken the reluctant decision to close down their businesses as it is simply unviable to operate with the restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the operating times currently in place. Quite simply, business owners feel defeated by these complex and ever-changing guidelines.

Even five-star hotels have decided to shut down – both Gleneagles in Perthshire and the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews will remain closed until the end of January. There is no doubt that others will follow.

Back in March, after the country went into its first lockdown, I had heartbreaking telephone conversations with SLTA members who were understandably distraught. They didn’t know what to do. They were at the end of their tether. Now, there are tears over tiers. Our hospitality industry is teetering on the brink of oblivion. The situation is grim.

This industry is on its knees and it is not just those businesses at the coal face of the licensed hospitality sector that are suffering – these measures have a devastating effect on the supply chains that support them.

And while we have been told that those premises now ordered to close will reopen, to some degree, on December 11, we are not optimistic that this will be the case. When pubs and bars were ordered to close in October in five health board areas, prior to the introduction of the tier system, the initial closure was for two weeks. This was then extended by a further week.

So, there is no guarantee really of a definitive date for reopening and the sector is unable to plan for what is the busiest time of the year.

Moving into tier four also suggests that the closing of pubs and bars in October in those five health board areas did very little to bring down the rate of Covid-19 infections. Indeed, there has been no meaningful engagement with our industry from the Scottish Government and there has been no evidence to prove that the virus is being spread within the licensed hospitality sector.

This week, it was reported that supermarkets are the most common places that people have visited in the days leading up to a positive coronavirus test reported to the NHS Test and Trace app in England, according to new data from Public Health England (PHE).

Of those who tested positive for Covid-19 in the days analysed by PHE, 18.3 per cent of them said they had visited a supermarket. This contrasts with just 1.6% who said they had a visited a pub or bar, and 1% who had visited a restaurant or café. We would be very interested to see the data for Scotland.

We absolutely support the goal of suppressing the virus. But we also want the Scottish Government to grasp that we are a sector in crisis with hundreds of businesses facing permanent closure and thousands of jobs hanging in the balance. Sadly, for some, the damage is already irreparable.

A recent survey of 600 on-trade premises carried out by the SLTA highlighted that within the pub and bar sector, 50,000 jobs could go and we estimate that two-thirds of all hospitality businesses could be mothballed or go under in the coming weeks. Over 50% of jobs in the pub and bar sector could also be lost which will have a particularly deep impact on the employment of young people as over 45% of staff employed are under the age of 25.

Closing these businesses also brings additional immediate financial costs for operators with the cost of actually closing a small wet pub around £2,000, a medium food pub around £6,000 and a large pub between £8,000 and £10,000. There are also the ongoing costs while closed which are greater than the support grants currently available.

Our survey further revealed that the average fixed costs over a wide range of licensed hospitality business types while closed came to over £11,000 per month.

It’s going to be a long and bleak winter for our industry.

Colin Wilkinson is managing director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association