SOS Scottish restaurants! Unless the Government sees sense and starts demonstrating solid support, we Scots will regress to eating 'muck off a truck' like we did in the 1970s.

We will be back to the days when Scottish catering establishments did little more than microwave burgers from frozen, and alternatives to fast food chains were as rare as hen’s teeth.

Who wants to revisit the times when chefs in Scotland hadn’t a clue about how to source or use the produce of their own land?

But thanks to the Scottish Government’s shoulder-shrugging indifference and unscientific bias, the grassroots food culture and growing networks that progressive chefs and food producers have cultivated in Scotland could be snuffed out.

And 50 years of food progress could be squandered and hundreds of worthwhile and otherwise viable businesses destroyed.

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I’m not exaggerating. Have you seen the statistics?

One in every ten restaurants has already closed permanently. The Business Insights and Conditions Survey shows that fewer than half (41%) of hospitality businesses – that’s restaurants, hotels, and pubs – are currently trading.

Nearly half (46%) of these struggling business have less than three months of cash reserves and 8% fear they won’t survive the next three months.

Overseas tourism has crashed, footfall in city centres is still down, as is public confidence, thanks to alarmist public health measures and messages.

And when restaurants are forced to close or operate at restricted capacity, there’s no option of just stopping the clock and mothballing the business. They continue to bleed money.

On average, those who have been struggling to open when permitted to do so have lost £12,000 each week. From higher heating bills to compensate for windows being open for extra ventilation to rigorous cleaning regimes and greeting protocols that require extra staff, conforming to government requirements has cost them dear.

Meanwhile the typical restaurant has taken only 20% of its 2019 earnings. Every Scottish hospitality business is now carrying an estimated average of £95k extra debt.

Furlough has not cushioned the blows because it actually costs businesses money. On average, restaurants, pubs, and hotels which are members of the Scottish Hospitality Group pay the UK Government a total of £150,000 per week in National Insurance contributions, yet receive just £66,000 a week in financial support.

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The victims are real people, not faceless statistics, grafters who have kept going despite one setback after another. But they can’t continue much longer if the Scottish Government keeps kicking them in the guts, and putting them through stop-start torture.

Our government’s characterisation of restaurants and other hospitality venues as Covid-spreading hotspots was lazy, irresponsible and false. Forced to come clean in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Hospitality Group, Holyrood was unable to provide any scientific evidence for it.

It’s that bad. Holyrood enacted draconian restrictions on the basis of a hunch that its high-handed advisers hadn’t bothered to research, needlessly condemning restaurateurs, publicans, and hoteliers to financial misery.

And the Scottish Government’s continued intransigence, even as restrictions in other parts of the UK have eased, signals an administration trying to cover up its errors, when it ought to admit and correct them.

To make matters worse, those restaurants that have staggered on now face an acute staffing crisis. So many chefs have either left the sector, retrained in another career, gone back to Europe or moved to agency work.

Restaurateurs can’t hire enough staff locally because many young people who once worked in hospitality, or saw it as an attractive occupation, have lost belief that they have any prospects in an industry so beleaguered, so butchered, and so undervalued.

In the face of such adversity, who could blame restaurateurs if they fell back on pre-made, bought-in menu components?

But what a tragedy for the Scottish food scene this would be.

I remember our food Dark Ages and we must never go back there.

The renaissance began in the 1970s. David Wilson, chef-proprietor of the Peat Inn, who sadly died recently, was the most influential figure. An internationalist who loved eating in Europe’s best restaurants, for David, good food was predicated on the provenance of the raw materials, which should always be local, seasonal and prepared from scratch.

Warm-hearted and wise, he was amusingly scathing about the convenience food shortcuts employed in the modern catering industry. His stove always bubbled away with three stocks – meat, fish, vegetable – when most restaurants would be buying in ready-made bouillons.

David fostered the small food suppliers on his doorstep, encouraging anyone who hand-made cheese, or reared great lamb, or set out on a day boat for line-caught fish, to deliver to him. His belief set the tone and upped the bar for many of his contemporaries. He influenced up-and-coming chefs, such as Andrew Fairlie, who in turn, enmeshed David’s values in the training they gave younger chefs.

High flying chefs, such as Tom Kitchin and Roy Brett, who had made their names in top establishments in England or in Europe, returned to Scotland, full of optimism that our eating out scene could hold its head high internationally. This progressive eating out culture became democratised. Many affordable neighbourhood restaurants were established, operating on principles that David would have heartily approved of.

But with its lockdowns and restrictions, the Scottish Government has taken a wrecking ball to this precious half century of food progress. Our MSPs, few of whom have any experience of self-employment, running a business, or catering, have gone along with it like sheep.

One top chef I know had a long, apparently sympathetic call with Nicola Sturgeon, but it made not one blind bit of difference. She as good as nuked the hospitality sector on a spurious basis.

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Hospitality bodies have collectively and individually put forward concrete proposals about how the situation can be salvaged. These include a permanent reduction in the VAT rate to 5%, and converting Bounce Back loans and Coronavirus Business Interruption loans into grants. But the Scottish Government has consistently refused to engage with them.

However embarrassing a volte face might be for Ms Sturgeon, it is long overdue. She told us that restaurants and other hospitality establishments were more dangerous than most places.

She was wrong, and should now make amends.

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