Over the past 48 hours, the reality of Tuesday’s confirmation of level 4 status has settled on my Eastwood constituents, who feel a mixture of weary resignation, bewilderment and fear. “What is it that we have failed to do?” ask many who have already done so much. Some small business owners who have invested heavily in stock for the season on which their livelihoods most depend have literally been in tears. Others have expressed alarm for their community.
These are not the sunny uplands with long, warm days of spring and summer ahead; rather, they are the cold, wet, short, dark days of winter, when the fear of isolation and loneliness presents challenges even without the addition of Covid.
Second-guessing the difficult decisions that the First Minister must take is a fool’s game, as we have seen. People understand that. However, what they want from the Government is practical, easily accessed support to keep their businesses and communities alive, and they tell me that what they have heard so far does not cut it.
What more can we do and what more will the Government do—for more it must do—to ensure that small local businesses survive and thrive and, importantly, that as this winter progresses, Christmas besides, we do not find that anxiety, fear of isolation and loneliness have been compounded, such that a more predictable, terrible and tragic toll of self-harm, in any of its forms, is visited on our communities?
Every single one of the decisions that I take, whether people agree with them or not and whether I get them right 100 per cent of the time or not, is taken with the sole objective of trying to keep the country as safe as possible and to get it through what I hope is now the final stage of the pandemic, with as few lives lost and as little harm to health—and, indeed, as little harm to the overall economy—as possible.
I understand the sentiment that says that, if we do less to control the virus, things are better for the economy. In fact, the opposite ends up being true: if we do not properly control the virus, the damage to the economy becomes worse, and the effects will be even longer lasting.
I know how difficult things will be for the local authority areas going into level 4 tomorrow, including Renfrewshire. I again make the point that the restrictions that will be in place in 11 local authority areas from tomorrow, albeit that they are the most populated parts of the country, are the same restrictions, by and large, as those that are in place in the entirety of England, without exception. Every country is grappling with this. Many parts of Europe now have restrictions like this in place. That does not make it easier, but it is important that we all keep sight of the overall, global perspective.
Applications are now open for grant support for businesses. The grants match the support that has been made available by the United Kingdom Government for businesses in England, but the discretionary funding that we are making available over and above that goes further—from what I understand to be the case in England—and will give greater flexibility to local authorities to enhance their support for businesses both in the supply chain and others that do not fall into the categories concerned. I know that local authorities are working hard to get that support to businesses as quickly as possible.
Government has a big responsibility to ensure that we support businesses, but nothing that we can do will absolutely compensate business for every single loss that is made. That is true in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the world. The most important thing that we can do for business is to get and keep the virus down, so that we can open not just the economy but society more, and do that sustainably. That is why, fundamentally, it is in all our interests to stick to the restrictions so as to get through the remaining phase of the pandemic as quickly and with as little harm as possible.