|The bosses’ offensive is reaching full throttle. The key piece of government advice it has in its sights is the two metre rule for physical distancing.
Tory backbenchers are pushing the Cabinet hard for a relaxation of the rule, citing World Health Organisation advice of one metre and pointing to countries, like Singapore for instance, in which the distance is just one metre. It’s curious that Tory MPs have suddenly noticed the WHO, after ignoring them on “test, test, test” at the beginning of this crisis. And a country like Singapore, one of the most densely populated in the world, can probably get away with one metre because the virus has been largely contained there and a fully functioning contact tracing and testing system is in place. The same cannot be said for the UK, which is up there with contenders for having the worst outbreak of Coronavirus in the world as well as a dysfunctional track and trace system.
In Scotland, employers are also pushing hard, including the corporate lobby. Andrew Wilson, co-founder of secretive corporate lobbying firm Charlotte St Partners and chair of the SNP Growth Commission report, has pushed for relaxation of the rule, saying it’s “time to get the balance right”. Sir Tom Hunter, the country’s first billionaire, has also chimed in.
“Lots of people from the hospitality sector are telling me the two metre rule doesn’t work so we shouldn’t be trying to make policy work which is nonsensical,” Hunter told the BBC, apparently oblivious to the possibility that ‘sense’ here might mean prioritising preventing a highly contagious and lethal virus from spreading.
Hunter claims he knows of “thousands of jobs that once furlough stops are just going to be unemployed”.
“The best social policy is a well-paid decent job,” he added.
If that’s true, then why hasn’t Sir Tom shown the same concern for poverty wages and zero-hour contracts in the hospitality sector as he has for eliminating the two metre rule? Scottish tourism bosses wants things to go back to the way they were, but the way they were did not work for tens of thousands of employees, is not ecologically sustainable and – perhaps most crucially – is totally unrealistic.
Even if Scotland followed the US and re-opened cafes and restaurants without distancing rules (somehow avoiding a second major outbreak), the evidence suggests that people will not return on mass to old consumption habits. Frankly, if a venue can’t keep you and your family two metres away from others during a pandemic, would you go there?
There will be no short-cuts to the painful but necessary process of changing Scotland’s economy to make it less reliant on international tourism, hospitality and retail, the quicker that is accepted the quicker progress can be made on alternatives. But in Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing’s announcement yesterday that the sector should prepare provisionally for re-opening on 15 July, there were signs that the Scottish Government really believe patching up sectors reliant on experiential and conspicuous consumption is a serious plan, calling for yet more tax breaks, this time on VAT, to go along with the various no-strings-attached subsidies currently being thrown at the sector. But reducing costs to a minimum will not magically re-generate demand for a consumption activity that is optional and reliant on people feeling confident, both financially and in terms of their health.
With the First Minister’s Economic Recovery Group set to present its provisional findings to the Cabinet, I hope and expect it will show vision for a new type of Scottish economy, one where government investment is focused towards social and ecological missions necessary for the long-term sustainability of the economy, perhaps the most important being the Green New Deal. I fear that it will suggest a string of public-private partnerships based around short-term metrics of profitability and GPD growth.
If ever there was a time to embrace a new economic model for Scotland it’s now. But it will require giving the aviation, tourism and hospitality corporate lobby – which will always put profits before people – short-shrift. The first litmus test is sticking to the two metre rule.
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