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“1349 was even worse, of course, so we have that to be grateful for.” That was the message in a card from one friend at Christmas time.

An exaggeration perhaps but, given what everyone has gone through in 2020, perhaps only a slight one.

We haven’t had the full 2020 export figures for Scottish salmon yet but we know they are down, significantly, on the year before.

Our members have exported less at lower prices than they wanted. They have had to change working practices, introduce new measures and add extra layers of precautions to protect their workers.

But, as they say, that was then and this is now and I believe that 2021 has the potential to be as good as 2020 was bad.

We hold fairly regular catch-up calls with our international counterparts from trade bodies across the world.

As 2020 progressed, one of the defining features of these meetings, for me, was the increasingly pessimistic forecast for food service outlets in the United States.

In April, we were told official estimates suggested 10-15 per cent of restaurants and food outlets would close and not re-open. By June it was 20-25 per cent and by September the estimate had reached 30 per cent.

It may well be that, by the time a final reckoning is done, a third of all food outlets in the US will have closed because of the pandemic. They may or may not ever re-open but, here’s the thing, if they don’t re-open then someone else will.

That is because the recovery, when it comes, will be big. There are signs that consumer trends in 2021 will be defined by two overlapping factors: a sizeable proportion of the population that has money to spend and people are desperate to get out and do the things they could not do in 2020.

It will take the roll-out of the vaccines, of course but consumers everywhere are so keen to return to even a semblance of normality that the recovery, when it comes, is likely to be a long and sustained.

Those restauranteurs who have managed to weather the Covid storm and who are still in business will thrive when the customers return – and return they will, in numbers – while those who have gone under will soon be replaced by others ready to capitalise on the post-pandemic spending spree.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, UK households built up an average of £7,100 in savings through 2020 simply because normal activities, from commuting to holidays, from going out to eating out, were curtailed.

So there is every indication that food service will not just get back on its feet in 2021, but it will thrive, all over the world.

Not only that, but the recovery is likely to be steady and sustained, not explosive.

BLOG: Why Scottish Salmon Farming Offers A Better Future For Us All

That is because the roll-out of the vaccines will take months, starting with the elderly and the vulnerable and moving down through the age bands.

As more and more people in work and with disposable incomes get the vaccine, so spending on eating out will increase.

But there is one more resumption of old habits we can look forward to in 2021 – the return of international travel.

As is now very well known, most Scottish salmon exports to distant markets are sent in the bellies of passenger planes but, with most passenger flights grounded, it became difficult – and expensive – for our producers to get fish to those markets in 2020.

You ask most British families what they are looking forward to, when they get the vaccine and most will say – going on holiday.

Flights will resume in 2021 and returning with them will be the opportunities to get our salmon to distant markets quickly and efficiently.

Again, there won’t be a ‘big bang’ when everything returns at once. It will take time, but there will be increased demand for good quality, healthy and nutritious food and alongside that, flights will return, bringing back more opportunities to get food to market.

I am very aware that I haven’t mentioned Brexit or any of the other potential obstacles to trade which could offset our return to normality in 2021.

But, at the time of writing, no-one has any idea how Brexit is going to affect exports to the EU, how bad any problems are going to be or how long they are going to last.

What is clear, though, is that 2020 and the global pandemic was not just a once-in-a-generation event, it was a once-in-a-century event. It cut the legs out from under so many businesses and so many sectors that life, for many, will not be the same again.

But 2021 will be better, much better. The signs are there. We should experience strong, sustained, long-term recovery driven by pent-up consumer frustration and unspent disposable income and sparked by the roll-out of the vaccine.

This will not just affect trade. It will run through every part of what we do.

For the last ten months, the SSPO team has not been able to meet a single politician or decision maker face to face – which, for a trade body whose job it is to lobby those very people, this has been something of a blow.

We need to get round the politicians we need to see this year, plus the ones we were prevented from seeing in 2020. It will be a busy year, certainly but also, I have no doubt, a very productive one.

Oh, and for those of you still wondering why 1349 was so bad, it was the year both the Black Death and earthquakes ripped through Europe.

By 1350, though, the first wave of the plague was in retreat, there were no earthquakes and the world was a much better place.

There aren’t any surviving records for the revival of food service and consumer spending in 1350, but I think we can assume they were saw a very definite upswing in that year too.

So if you look out of your window on to a gloomy January morning, contemplating yet another day working from the same spot in your kitchen, do remember – the darkest hour really is just before the dawn.

This blog by Hamish Macdonnell, the SSPO's Director of Strategic Engagement first appeared in the January edition of Fish Farmer magazine.

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