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Health / Lack of charitable sector aid ‘threatens its future’

Meanwhile the tourism season is shrouded in uncertainty

Shetland Museum and Archives.

SHETLAND Amenity Trust (SAT) is facing “a very significant loss of income” owing to closures enforced by the coronavirus and potential massive disruption to its main money raising events.

Trust chief executive Mat Roberts decried the lack of help for the voluntary sector as yet coming for either the Westminster or Holyrood governments.

Scottish economy secretary Fiona Hyslop announced a £2.2 billion package of aid this afternoon (Wednesday), but with no specific mention of anything for the charitable sector, which includes the likes of SAT.

Roberts said: “The voluntary sector in the UK employs the same number of people as the airline industry, which appears to be getting special help.

“The charitable sector is worth £15bn to the economy, but so far there has been no comment from anyone in government about how it will be supported. We are extremely vulnerable (…) there is not a voluntary sector organisation in the UK that does not have fragile financing.”

He added: “Depending how long the closures go on for we are looking at a very significant level of loss of income at risk and we are working through what that might mean for us in the long term.

“These are tough times and very difficult times”.

Amenity trust chief executive Mat Roberts.Shetland Amenity Trust chief executive Mat Roberts.

The fate of the SAT’s main money spinner, the Shetland Wool Week, which generated £230,000 in ticket sales last May, remains uncertain with a virtual event being planned for its anticipated opening in May, but with the chance that might also be delayed till June.

According to Roberts, wool week’s substantial global mailing list meant a virtual event could actually engage more participants than the actual event.

The trust is also seeking feedback on the possibilities for virtual events for its popular Boat Week and Nature Festival.

Roberts said that the trust was not yet considering redundancies but had redeployed its staff to home working or other backroom activities while public buildings like Shetland Museum and Archives are closed.

It is also likely to decide next week whether to delay its summer opening hours, a move that would affect a small number of staff taken on to enable the summer timetable.

Roberts said that there had been cancellations of the trust’s light house accommodation and camping böds, which normally net about £60,000 a year.

“We may see none of that or a more or less proportion of that this year,” he said.

Public organisations across the UK have closed their doors including the National Trust in England, Scottish Museums and Historic Scotland.

Shetland Recreational Trust (SRT), which closed its leisure centres on Tuesday, was approached for comment but has not responded as yet.

Unison Shetland branch chair Susanne Gens said that she had not heard any talk of redundancies and that its members, who work in the public sector including the SRT, were being redeployed if necessary.

Roberts said that some staff were still able to work at the museum while the organisation’s “very good” video conferencing system made remote working possible.

Outdoors maintenance staff and woodlands squads were working but “keeping suitable distances from one another”.

SAT was also supporting staff who were self-isolating who might have at risk people to look after.

And he said that one member of staff had reported that they had been in contact with someone who might have the virus and were now self-isolating.

“We try to be as responsible an employer as we can be,” he said.

Hotelier Caroline McKenzie, who runs Scalloway Hotel with husband Peter, said that healthy bookings for April, mostly from the business sector, had vanished.

She said that there were five or six emails cancelling bookings every day and the all-important summer season is shrouded in uncertainty, as are the prospects for the 12 full and part-time staff in the business.

Scalloway Hotel owners Peter and Caroline McKenzie. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

McKenzie added: “We have not paid anyone off as such, but there’s a lot of uncertainty across the trade about what happens to staff in hotels in the interim, when no-one has been told officially to close.”

Hyslop’s parliamentary announcement of cash to stave off an “immediate collapse in demand” in the economy outlined funds for non domestic rates relief, hospitality, tourism and retail, and grants for some small businesses.

She also urged local authorities to relax planning rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate temporarily as takeaways.

She has also delayed the deposit return scheme to July 2022 and halted the introduction of the controversial visitor levy bill.

Hyslop said: “The overall economic impact is clearly likely to be significant, though the scale and duration of the impact are difficult to predict.

“Depressed economic activity this year will have implications for the public finances through lower tax receipts and higher welfare spending.

“This will have severe economic consequences and we are treating it as an economic emergency, triggered by the enormity of the health emergency.”

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said that he had written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to press the case for voluntary sector support.

He added: “You will not get a better working example than this of the impact of the coronavirus on charities and the loss that the community stands to bear as a result.

“It is pretty clear that while the figures spoken of by the Chancellor yesterday were impressive, there is very little detail. The money announced must reach much wider than just to business.”