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Insight: The social and economic realities of Scotland’s Christmas 2021

That will thankfully be in sharp contrast to Christmas last year that for many was bleak and lonely, amid an imminent lockdown and separated from family and friends, and hopes are high this year’s will be much jollier.

That said, pressures remain, with the ongoing economic shockwaves of the pandemic weighing on people’s finances and livelihoods, and restrictions such as vaccination passports meaning that while people can go out and celebrate, it is not with quite the same carefree spirit as before Covid-19.

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Some people will no doubt be pulling the stops out for a festive season with fanfare to make up for muted celebrations last year, while others will be keeping a close eye on their budget – and wondering if they can make ends meet until January’s pay packet comes in. There are also concerns about whether Christmas dinner and gift items will make it to Scottish households amid major supply-chain issues.

Sttephen Montgomery from the Scottish Hospitality Group

That said, perhaps we should be grateful that those of us who want to celebrate Christmas can do so – it was banned in Scotland for almost four centuries after all, with even singing a Christmas carol at one point considered a serious offence, and December 25 only became a public holiday north of the Border in 1958.

Tills have long since joined the chorus of bells ringing as a crucial element of the soundtrack to the festive season.

But what kind of Christmas do Scotland’s shops face, after, as the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) has noted, they have missed out on £4.5 billion of revenues over the past 18 or so months?

Two women are seen walking past a shop display with a sign reading ‘Bah Humbug’ last Christmas. Photograph: Peter Summers

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, the SRC’s head of policy and external affairs, believes retailers will be “desperate for some festive sparkles to provide a little light after a gloomy year”, and following 2020’s “disappointing” Christmas.

“If the virus remains suppressed then our hope is consumers will look to try to have some festive fun and frivolities after a fairly austere approach last year. If not, it may be a hard winter for the industry,” he states.

Springboard has forecast that footfall across UK retail destinations this Christmas will average 17 per cent lower than 2019, although footfall will be 80.9 per cent stronger than in 2020.

MacDonald-Russell says consumer spending “remains stable”, adding: “In recent months we have seen a shift from home products to fashion and footwear as consumers venture outside after the lockdown earlier this year. Our hope is those shoppers will look to start buying gifts over the next few months which can then fuel a festive bounce.”

Sttephen Montgomery from the Scottish Hospitality Group

And he states that Scottish retailers are “exploring every option, for example different suppliers and shipping routes, to ensure they can deliver as good a Christmas as possible”.

But he believes that without urgent action to resolve the HGV driver shortage, they will struggle to produce their full range of products, and advises consumers to be organised with their shopping.

Stephen Leckie – who is at the helm of Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels – remembers how on Christmas Eve last year his business had to temporarily shut its doors amid the looming resumption of lockdown.

The historic Perthshire hotel forms the heart of one of the most popular holiday resorts in Scotland.

That was in stark contrast to the picture exactly 12 months previously, when 2,000 guests in the festive spirit were welcomed across the hotel’s properties.

Looking ahead to Christmas 2021, the hotelier – who also serves as chairman of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, for example – reports busy web traffic, both perusing and making bookings for the likes of party nights, Christmas, “Twixtmas” and New Year across his hotel properties.

And while he says the Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels is not as badly affected as some peers by the well-publicised staffing drought, it nonetheless has 150 vacancies to supplement its 700-strong workforce.

The British Chambers of Commerce has flagged how in the third quarter of this year, 92 per cent of firms in hospitality and catering that attempted to recruit reported difficulties in doing so, up from 76 per cent in the previous three-month period. Additionally, trade body UKHospitality has flagged 188,000 open vacancies across the sector.

Leckie consequently wonders whether hospitality can “staff up” for Christmas and New Year – and he reports hearing many hoteliers and restauranteurs saying they will not be open at all over the festive period because they cannot get the staff, and their existing staff are exhausted.

Recruiter Indeed has found that nearly a third fewer candidates are searching for seasonal Christmas jobs compared to this time in 2019 and 2018.

2022 Happy new year champaign cork cap islated on white. 3d illustration

Venues that will be open are nevertheless still having to comply with post-pandemic regulations, finding themselves decked out in red tape as well as Christmas decorations.

Stephen Gow, general manager of The Chester Hotel in Aberdeen, forecasts a “Cinderella Christmas” for the sector. “Many hospitality businesses have taken the decision that their office party nights and events will end at midnight rather than later, this year, except for Hogmanay, to avoid having to check all attendees’ vaccine passports at the start of the evening.”

Also citing the impact of Covid-related rules and regulations is Scottish Hospitality Group’s (SHG) Stephen Montgomery, who reports that festive bookings across the organisation’s membership are slow.

He attributes much of this to the messaging around onerous restrictions, such as the vaccine passports. “The messaging is completely wrong around us,” he says – adding that hospitality always seems to be in the firing line.

Pre-Covid, some firms could make as much as about a third of their annual turnover in December alone, which would get them through the quieter months of January and February, Mr Montgomery also points out.

That is compared to his own business – the Townhead Hotel in Lockerbie – looking set for sales to be down by about a third in the last month of this year compared to December 2019, while he also notes that hospitality firms face extra financial burdens next year such as VAT returning to 20 per cent.

He is calling for more positive messaging from government around hospitality, one of goodwill to match the season of goodwill, to emphasise that Christmas 2021 is on. “Let’s not cancel Christmas 2021 like we did last year.”

Few can be unaware of current supply-chain issues, leading to empty supermarket shelves – one in five Scots was unable to buy essential food items in one recent two-week period, for example, according to delivery management specialist Urbantz.

And with the festivities set to gain pace in the coming weeks there have been concerns about key elements of festive food and drink, such as pigs in blankets, not making an appearance – are we therefore facing a Christmas dinner that is mired in frugality rather than frivolity?

Several Scottish food and drink organisations in August called for urgent governmental action on tackling the labour crisis in the industry to help save Christmas.

Among signatories to the letter was James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, who now says that while the food supply chain is “extraordinarily resilient”, as demonstrated during the pandemic, it is under more pressure now than at any point in recent years due to the labour shortage crisis.

He is also calling on shoppers to keep buying normally, and plan ahead for the festive season. “Much of our shopping is done in the ten days before Christmas, but we can buy things for freezers and cupboards well before that as they have longer shelf life.

“I am concerned about a reduction in availability and choice, on a long-term basis, but I know that producers, wholesalers, and hauliers will pull out all the stops to get products where they need to be for the festive season. But there is no hiding the fact that it is going to be a huge challenge this year.”

The Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA) was among other organisations calling for action to save Christmas. Its members include Bidfood Scotland, Brakes, and Fife Creamery, and SWA chief executive Colin Smith says that overall, and amid the staff shortage, product availability is running at about 80 per cent of what it should be, reducing to around 70 per cent in the Highlands and islands.

He adds that some of the organisation’s members are seeing sales at 120 per cent of what they were pre-Covid, amid easing restrictions, but with up to 30 per cent fewer staff than they should have.

Christmas meals might have to this year be more traditional and pared back in the absence of labour-intensive, luxury items such as stuffed, rolled gammon. “Christmas hasn’t been cancelled, it’s just that you might not have the same choice as you would normally be used to.”

Additionally, while many will be hoping to serve wine with their Christmas meal, this is among products potentially facing a shortage – but efforts are under way to top up supplies. Rodney Doig, commercial director of wine importer, retailer and wholesaler WoodWinters Wines and Whiskies, which has stores in Bridge of Allan, Edinburgh and Inverness, addresses the issue.

“We are seeing shipping times double, and UK bonded warehouses add further delays due to staffing shortages and a huge peak in volumes in the second half of the year causing backlogs.

“If you plan to drink champagne, I would buy it now too. We have worked hard to bypass where possible, increasing many stocks and buying ahead.”

Items in potential short supply:

Hampers and gift packs (such as a cheese and port gift set)

It is a time of year when for most of us the plastic in our wallets takes a heavier hammering than usual.

Indeed, UK households spend almost £740 more in December on average than in a usual month – nearly a third more than the average usual outgoings.

But there are real concerns that this year will see purse strings stretched to breaking point for many by the festive season – already sharply tightened by factors such as higher food and energy bills and the end of the Universal Credit uplift.

In fact, three quarters of UK adults are concerned by rising inflation and the cost of living, while more than one in three say they feel more anxious about their future compared to before the pandemic, according to research recently published by Aviva.

Furthermore, the UK’s latest gross domestic product (GDP) data has also shone a spotlight on the issue, with a 0.4 per cent jump in August.

Kevin Brown, savings specialist at Scottish Friendly, said: “The GDP figures for August are positive on face value but, at this point in the burgeoning cost of living crisis, just serve as a historic reminder of the pressures bearing down on the economy”. Many households are now being confronted with “the very real prospect of an economic lockdown as their disposable income is stripped back”, he adds.

Against this backdrop, thousands of families across Scotland “are facing a very difficult Christmas”, comments Peter Kelly, director of The Poverty Alliance, which says it is Scotland’s anti-poverty network.

“A time that should be spent celebrating with loved ones will instead be one of worry — unless urgent action is taken. Too many people are already being forced to choose between heating their homes or buying food for their children, and that pressure will just increase as the festive season approaches.

He is calling for the Scottish and UK governments to take action such as reversing the Universal Credit cut, scrapping the benefit cap and two-child limit, and immediately doubling the Scottish Child Payment.

“For those concerned about this winter, please seek guidance from local advice organisations like your local Citizens Advice Bureau who can provide help in accessing crisis funding,” he adds.

Indeed, Citizens Advice Scotland chief executive Derek Mitchell says: “We’re very concerned that this could be the most difficult winter for some time, and we are keen to make sure that people know that our expert money advisers are here to help.”

He notes the organisation has been looking at how people in Scotland are struggling financially through the pandemic, for example finding that 1.4 million people in Scotland ran out of money at least once before payday during the first year of the pandemic.

“And that was before the perfect storm of the last few weeks,” which has seen the cost of living soar, he adds. “Our message to anyone who is worried about their bills is that the [Citizens Advice Bureaux] network is here to help. Our advice is always free, confidential and impartial. We can often find income streams that you don’t know you were entitled to. Failing that we can talk to your creditors and help reduce any debt repayments and we can also negotiate on your behalf with energy companies. ”

It is the season of goodwill, but also one that magnifies the vast economic discrepancies across society.

What is being done from a charitable perspective at this time of year – and has the pandemic highlighting financial woes prompted more compassion, and more people looking to help?

The latter is indeed the case, according to Grant Campbell, director of services at homelessness-focused charity Crisis – which takes on volunteers to help over the festive period. In fact this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its Crisis Christmas centres.

“Christmas can be a particularly hard time of year for people experiencing homelessness and our volunteers are absolutely vital to everything we do. There’s no doubt we’ve seen a rise in concern from people who want to help end homelessness in Scotland,” he says.

“The pandemic really highlighted the value of community, and while the restrictions brought by Covid forced us to change the way we approach Christmas, our volunteers rose to the challenge,” he adds.

“Social distancing made an in-person centre impossible last year, so we took Christmas to our guests by delivering food, gifts, essential items, making calls to check in on people, while also offering online activities such as yoga and art.

“This year will be different again, and while some of our services will need to be carried out remotely, our aim will stay the same as ever – to reach out to people who find themselves isolated, and to help them end their homelessness.”

Food bank also have a key role to play. Sabine Goodwin, co-ordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, whose membership includes more than 500 independent food banks, cites the turmoil brought about by the combination of the cut in Universal Credit, the end of furlough, and the rise in energy and food prices.

This will undoubtedly increase both the need for emergency food aid and wider food insecurity in Scotland in the coming months, she says. “Donation levels and food-supply shortages are impacting on independent food banks’ capacity to meet demand, but in any case the solution is not in giving out yet more emergency food parcels.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the scale of food poverty, and its driver poverty, which must be tackled through a cash-first approach and income-based solutions.”

Christmas is already an emotionally fraught period for many, but this year’s will see some of the most common stresses, such as financial pressures, social isolation, and bereavement, magnified by the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

In the wake of World Mental Health Day last weekend, with this year’s theme “mental health in an unequal world”, there are various steps people can take to help minimise the impact of such increased problems during the approaching festive season.

Julie Cameron, associate director of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, cites tips on the organisation’s website, such as “giving yourself permission to have the Christmas you want, not over-committing to social events that you don’t have the energy for, and taking time out to relax and do something you enjoy”.

Many other organisations offer tips on how to manage Christmas, such as mental health charity Mind, whose advice includes making a list of any services that you might need and their Christmas opening hours, and consider talking to someone you trust about what you need to cope.

Cameron also says more must be done to create a wellbeing society “where every person is empowered to have good mental health”. She adds: “This has to include ensuring that every person has the means to support themselves, safe and adequate housing, and access to a host of community services.

“We urge the Scottish Government to honour the commitments it made in its Programme for Government to reduce inequalities and create a Scotland where we can all thrive. Hopefully next Christmas we will begin to see positive changes with more people living healthier and happier lives.”

Santa Claus standing in supermarket

www.scotsman.com

The Scotsman

The Scotsman is a Scottish compact newspaper and daily news website headquartered in Edinburgh. First established as a radical political paper in 1817, it began daily publication in 1855 and remained a broadsheet until August 2004. Its parent company, JPIMedia, also publishes the Edinburgh Evening News.

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