Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 5:12 pm, 12th January 2021

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the behavioural advisory group for SAGE and professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews in my constituency, said at the weekend that contrary to the impression we might get from reports, the reality is that about 90% of the public are complying with the restrictions to date, and indeed one of the success stories has been that public compliance. Where people do not comply, and I am not talking about the very small core of those who are blatantly flouting the rules, it is generally because of practicalities or lack of information—it is about complexity —and I do very much agree with the professor’s analysis.

The public health messaging in all parts of the UK, including in Scotland and in England, has undoubtedly been complex because it has become clear that these varied and complex systems are too often not backed up with the appropriate support. In North East Fife, where so much of the hospitality industry relies on tourists from outside the area, businesses are struggling. A case in point is the Peat Inn, a restaurant in my constituency that, in 2020, was ranked at No. 23 in its list of the top 50 restaurants in Britain by “The Good Food Guide”. It has a Michelin star and, as Members may imagine, it is very much an attraction. As soon as Fife went into level 3, meaning that nobody outside Fife could travel into the kingdom and restaurants were not allowed to serve alcohol, the Peat Inn understandably decided it was no longer profitable for it to remain open. Its head chef, Nick Briggs, told me that he felt hospitality was being “unfairly singled out” and being made to jump through hoops.

Of course, because the Peat Inn generates tourism for North East Fife, the fact that it was forced to close has had an impact on other local businesses. The Tarskavaig B&B, which is about 1 mile down the road from the restaurant, also got in touch with me. Its business is at least 50% Peat Inn customers, so when the Peat Inn shut, all but one of its bookings cancelled. The owners have really struggled for support anyway. As they pay council tax rather than rates, they have been ineligible for the hardship funds and rates relief. They have been excluded from support. In all these general debates, we have talked a lot about those who have been excluded, and I continue to urge the Government to do more. There will be many more small businesses like the Tarskavaig B&B across Scotland and the rest of the UK, and many more restaurants like the Peat Inn.

Many of the small business owners in my constituency are still waiting to access some of the £185 million of funding that was announced by the Scottish Government in early December. My constituency team and I were very pleased to hear the Scottish Government’s confirmation of support yesterday, but it is vital that these schemes get up and running as soon as possible. January is very difficult financially for many at the best of times.

It was disappointing to hear the Chancellor’s statement yesterday. Last March, we accepted that support would be best delivered using existing mechanisms, but now we find ourselves in a third English lockdown relying on the same schemes that have not been sufficiently tweaked, modified or developed to cope with the later stage of the pandemic. It is not right. I say to the Government that now is not the time to step back from support. Now is the time to make sure that businesses are equipped with what they need to survive.