Sir Tom Hunter: Social distancing rules could mean mass job losses

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Sir Tom Hunter has warned governments against “hiding” behind science when considering reopening businesses

Leading figures in business have warned of mass unemployment in Scotland when the furlough scheme ends.

Scotland’s first ever billionaire, Sir Tom Hunter urged the Scottish and UK governments against “hiding” behind scientists to keep “nonsensical” social distancing measures in place.

He called for an urgent review of the rule that keeps people 2m (6ft) apart.

It comes as the Scottish tourism sector was told to prepare to reopen on 15 July.

Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing warned that “absolutely nothing can be guaranteed” and this date may change if the evidence on Covid-19 requires it.

The Scottish government has brought on ex-banker Benny Higgins to chair a panel on the route to economic recovery.

But Sir Tom said more collaboration was required and that governments needed to listen to people who worked in business for more practical solutions.

“If we don’t, the job losses are going to be catastrophic,” he told the BBC’s Drivetime with John Beattie.

“The furlough scheme was absolutely essential and I really hope the scheme is a bridge back to employment and not a bridge straight to unemployment.

“Lots of people from the hospitality sector are telling me the 2m rule doesn’t work so we shouldn’t be trying to make policy work which is nonsensical.

“I know of thousands of jobs that once furlough stops are just going to be unemployed. The best social policy is a well-paid decent job.”

‘There’s no money coming in’

The tourism sector in particular has objected to social distancing rules – chiefly keeping people apart by 2m.

Scotland’s chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith said relaxing this rule would increase the risk of the virus spreading.

However several countries have already reduced the distance that people must keep apart to as little as 1m.

Glasgow nightclub owner Donald MacLeod told BBC News the live music and club scene could not operate with keeping people apart.

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Hold Fast Entertainment Group

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Owner of the Cathouse and Garage rock clubs in Glasgow, Donald MacLeod

He said he feared of the consequences for staff when government money was “tapered off”.

“Employers are going to be asked to contribute and when we get to October you’re looking at 23% gross employer contribution – that’s not sustainable.

“I wouldn’t be able to take part in that because there’s no money coming in. We need to conserve our reserves and unfortunately that means mass redundancies.”

‘We all take risks’

Sir Tom said businesses needed to reopen as soon as possible with support given for sustainability – such as breaks on business rates.

He accepted there may be risk to public health but said it was unrealistic to hope for a “100% guarantee of what’s safe”.

“I know it’s hard and it’s very easy to hide behind the scientists,” he said. “But we all take risks – as you go in your car in the morning there’s no guarantee you won’t be in a road traffic accident.”

Mr MacLeod added that to avoid Scotland’s economy “falling down a hole”, the government needed to produce a “confident, detailed and concise” plan for how businesses could operate.

“We can’t wait on a vaccine,” he said.”We all hope there is one but we have to get on with what we have at present.”

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