Covid: Nicola Sturgeon's puritanical, authoritarian streak means pubs and restaurants are being unfairly treated – Richard Leonard

The Scottish Labour movement and the hospitality industry have not always been natural bedfellows.

Nicola Sturgeon has not provided sufficient evidence in support of the Covid restrictions on the hospitality sector, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Scottish Government)
Nicola Sturgeon has not provided sufficient evidence in support of the Covid restrictions on the hospitality sector, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Scottish Government)

Indeed as a union organiser, I had a few run-ins and the occasional employment tribunal victory against some rogue employers from the sector.

The widespread use of zero-hour contracts, and so low pay coupled with long and unstable hours, and anti-union practices, have rightly prompted public campaigns for a much better standard of workplace treatment particularly from a number of restaurant and bar chains.

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In its ‘fair hospitality charter’, Unite the Union makes a call for basic rights like guaranteed rest breaks, minimum-hour contracts, trade union access, equal pay for young workers, and a ‘real living wage’.

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Covid: Scale of the hospitality sector crisis is daunting – Scotsman comment

Common cause

The uncovering of the reprehensible practice in some restaurant chains of keeping part of the customer tips intended for staff was a low point in relations between workers and parts of the hospitality industry.

Theresa May announced at the Conservative Party conference two years ago that this would be outlawed with “tough new legislation”. We are still waiting.

Pubs and restaurants gave PPE to staff and introduced other measures designed to stop the spread of Covid-19 (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA)

Yet, during this pandemic, particularly when harsh restrictions were re-imposed this autumn, I have made common cause with the industry.

Over these last few months, bars, restaurants and cafes have been demonised as an easy target to blame for the spread of Covid. It does feel as though they have been treated like Sodom and Gomorrah by the SNP government.

The blanket closure of all pubs, bars and restaurants, during their busiest time of the year, has been economically devastating. We have seen the end of night-time economies and a genuine and widespread fear that businesses, once closed, will not re-open.

Boris Johnson’s failures, and they are manifold, should not deflect us from holding Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government to account over its treatment of the sector.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes were originally told in October that they were being shut for just two weeks, a so-called ‘circuit breaker’, to give the NHS and public services room to breathe ahead of winter.

Like US Prohibition

Hospitality industry bodies claimed they were being unjustly singled out. They were right. Repeated calls for evidence to back up the First Minister’s claims that hospitality businesses were driving up infection rates were not met then. Even now, we are still waiting for that evidence.

For many family-run and independent businesses, the decision was a bitter blow. Especially when they had diligently invested in and upheld stringent health and safety rules, including table service-only policies, menu digitisation, track-and-trace, temperature checking, strict social distancing, the erection of screens, compulsory hand sanitising for customers, and full staff PPE.

Nicola Sturgeon’s tone in early October suggested the measure was a temporary hiatus, and not a return to the four-month shutdown the sector faced at the pandemic’s start.

But we are nearly three months on. People could be forgiven for beginning to think Nicola Sturgeon had effectively imposed a version of 1920s US prohibition on their communities.

An insistence that licensed venues, allowed to open under hyper-strict and extremely time-limited conditions, do not serve alcohol, has at best an air of puritanism about it, at worst it smacks of an authoritarian streak at the heart of the SNP’s nationalism.

Labour MSPs like Alex Rowley have reasonably pointed out in parliament that allowing just an extra two-and-a-half hours of opening and alcohol sales, subject to strict social distancing, would increase turnover from £419m to £1.1bn in areas covered by restrictions.

Sturgeon’s post-pandemic debt

Yet the SNP government has dismissed this and insists Draconian restrictions for the hospitality sector must remain in place, apparently indefinitely, and across the whole of mainland Scotland, regardless of local conditions.

Time and again, I have challenged the First Minister to justify her policy of turning off the sector like a tap and then expecting it to be just as easily turned back on again, without any clear evidence to back up that approach.

When the rollout of the vaccine and a sustained fall in infections allows a real easing of restrictions, Nicola Sturgeon will owe a post-pandemic debt to what remains of Scotland’s hospitality sector.

Just as other critical sectors like tourism and the rural economy need additional financial help and a comprehensive plan to revive their Covid-ravaged industries, so too will hospitality.

The government minister responsible for hospitality during this crisis also has responsibility for rural affairs, connectivity, agriculture, forestry, fishing, tourism and animal welfare. Maybe his brief is too wide, but if he has been making the case for hospitality around the Cabinet table, he has been failing miserably.

The hospitality sector, including those who work in it, needs its voice not just to be heard, but listened to. The only conclusion we can draw is that will require a combination of even greater determination and even more active self-organisation.

But what we also need is a government prepared to bring together industry leaders, trade unions and government to plan a way forward in the post-Covid, post-Brexit challenge we now face.

That’s why as we enter 2021, we must offer a ‘New Deal’ for this sector in Scotland, with generous support for those that have survived the Covid crisis, and those hoping to revive their business. This should include assistance for the option of businesses converting to employee-ownership and co-operative models to promote sustainability and democracy in the economy.

The hospitality industry itself has a golden opportunity to reset the way it treats workers. It’s clear to me for example that Covid state aid should be dependent on firms paying workers a real living wage, recognising trade unions, and dropping practices like zero-hour contracts.

This Hogmanay, all our bars and restaurants on the mainland remain closed, regardless of local infection rates. We do not yet know when they will reopen.

When they do it should be with our full backing not just as consumers of their services but as citizens of communities who want to see a rich cultural and economic tapestry in our neighbourhoods.

Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader

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