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Oban shop owner: ‘Surviving until next summer is going to be a huge challenge for businesses’

© Iain FergusonFirms in Oban have been battered as lockdown saw spending plunge hitting firms                        like Shirley and Richard Home’s jewellery shop
Firms in Oban have been battered as lockdown saw spending plunge hitting firms like Shirley and Richard Home’s jewellery shop

For Oban business owners Shirley and Richard Home, the lockdown has been financially devastating.

The couple shifted their Scottish Island Jewellery shop from the Isle of Bute to the popular tourism town five years ago as it was busier.

“Until March it had been a good move for us,” said mother-of-two, Shirley, 42. “But just before lockdown, business plummeted and then we had to close to customers.

“We have been trying to get by on a fraction of our usual income but that can’t go on forever. It is very challenging just to pay day-to-day bills.

“We have also been paying rent on an empty shop since March. The landlord has been very good and said if we can’t afford it then we can sort it out later – but that would just mean having even more debt when we finally reopen.”

Town and out? Spending data reveals savage impact of Covid across Scotland

Shirley also has a health condition that means she has spent the lockdown shielding. She still doesn’t know when she will be able to return to work in the shop.

To help make ends meet, her husband Richard took a part-time job as a fisherman but that work soon dried up.

Shirley said they have received a small business grant of £10,000 and have also accessed government support for the self-employed.

“That cash has certainly been a help, but even if we do open again next month we are still going to struggle as we have lost so much already.

“Surviving until next summer when things hopefully get back to some kind of normality is going to be a huge challenge for many businesses in Oban.

“The place feels like a bit of a ghost town just now.”

Picturesque Oban is usually bustling with visitors at this time of year with the town centre gift shops, restaurants and bars packed with a mix of day-trippers and holidaymakers from overseas.

Instead, many shops are shuttered, the “closed” signs are everywhere and the streets are virtually empty of people.

Fiona Hutchison, who runs the Kinlochlaich Garden Plant Centre not far outside town, is also feeling the pain. Her business relies on visitors travelling the busy summer route between Oban and Fort William – but even though the garden centre reopened two weeks ago, business is still at a trickle compared to usual.

“I had to furlough my two part-time workers and I have been doing 16-hour days, seven days a week, to keep things going by making home deliveries,” she said. “We have also launched a click and collect service.

“The lockdown has been a double blow to me as I have a holiday cottage for rent but that is shut, too. A lot of people here are in the same boat.”

Oban is known as The Gateway to the Isles, but ferry services have been slashed during the lockdown and restricted to locals.

State-owned ferry operator CalMac said it is carrying just 5% of normal traffic as it enters what is usually the busiest period of the year.

The firm, which saw passenger numbers drop by 110,000 during Easter alone, is now seeking millions of pounds from the Scottish Government.

Andrew Spence, chief executive of business support organisation Bid4Oban, said its 550-plus members welcomed measures announced last week by Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing to support Scotland’s vital tourism industry.

A Scottish Recovery Taskforce will assist with the ongoing reset of the sector but Mr Spence said Oban businesses were still bracing for more tough times ahead.

“There is a huge concern that some businesses won’t come out the other side of this,” he said. “Hopefully we can salvage some of the summer season and recover some of the devastating financial losses but many of our businesses will need ongoing financial support to survive.”

Scottish Conservative Highlands & Islands MSP Donald Cameron said: “Oban is a bustling and busy transport hub but the supply that keeps that going has been severed.

“Everywhere in Scotland has taken a hit, but the consequences for Oban have been absolutely devastating.

“The Scottish Government needs to get a package of support for Oban which takes into account just how badly affected the town has been.

“We want to see Oban return to its full potential, but it can only do that with urgent help.”