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Business / Wholesaler calls for greater support amid tough trading conditions

A LERWICK wholesaler is calling on the government to offer greater support to the sector as it continues to grapple with the challenges presented by operating under Covid-19 restrictions for almost a year.

Management at Hughson Brothers have spoken out about the impact losing business has had over the past year and are urging islanders to get behind a petition calling for a tailored financial support package.

Valuable catering contracts have been affected, particularly when schools have been shut or only partially open, while restaurant and café trade has been intermittent and a host of community events have not happened at all.

Hughson Brothers director Carl Cross said they had received a business support grant at the start of the pandemic and had also made limited use of the UK government’s furlough scheme for workers. But it was “nowhere near the amount of support we would have needed”.

While Hughson’s gets roughly two thirds of its trade from retail – meaning it has not been affected as severely as some wholesalers – an upturn in trade through some shops has not come close to compensating for the loss of business in hospitality and catering.

“We’ve lost lots of stock going out of date, stuff like local beers when there have been no tourists, regular beers that would have been in the pubs, the same thing with restaurants basically being closed down,” Cross told Shetland News.

“The retail side of things was up, thankfully, but the overall loss – all the open-air functions, the Simmer Dim rally, the Cunningsburgh and Voe shows, never mind all the people not coming to the islands – that has had a knock-on effect for everybody.”

He said the business had kept almost all of their employees in work since last March, but the longer the crisis continues the greater the risk may be of having to make some redundancies.

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“We’ve chosen to keep everyone employed, but we were expecting more help to offset losing stuff that would have gone to schools, bars and pubs, gone out of date. Even getting rates relief for one year would have helped us.”

The petition, which so far has attracted nearly 7,000 signatures, calls for recognition of the “lifeline” role wholesalers play in supplying hospitals, care homes and schools and highlights how they have been “excluded from much government support and face sector-wide closures”.

It says that must change and that “bespoke financial support packages must be offered by government now”.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael spoke in the House of Commons earlier this week of how many small businesses in the islands were reliant on wholesalers that had been “significantly impacted” by the pandemic.

“For communities such as those in Orkney and Shetland, the wholesale sector provides a range of business services that goes well beyond the support of local retail businesses,” the Liberal Democrat MP said.

He referred to Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA) data showing that 10 per cent of the workforce has already been lost, with some businesses losing over 80 per cent of trade, and even after some restrictions have been eased wholesalers are “operating at 30 per cent of their pre-Covid levels”.

Carmichael said: “To give credit where it is due, the Scottish Government introduced the Scottish wholesale food and drink resilience fund, but even then, they did not reach every business that needed the help.

“It was supposed to be a six-month package, but it has been overtaken by events. The SWA is looking for an immediate top-up of the fund in the region of £50 million, and that is needed now, not in the next financial year.”

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