BUSINESS leaders have told Nicola Sturgeon her modified framework for lifting Covid rules is “moving the goalposts” – warning it could hamper “confidence and recovery” for traders.
The First Minister confirmed all parts of Scotland will move to level 0 on July 19 but “modifications” are to be made from the original plans – with limits on outdoors meetings to remain in place, the return of office working delayed while face mask rules are set to remain “for some time to come”.
Physical distancing will reduce to 1 metre in all indoor public settings and outdoors.
Hospitality businesses had hoped they would be allowed to open subject to local licensing rules from Monday when the move to level 0 takes effect – but the First Minister announced they will instead be required to shut their doors at midnight.
Ms Sturgeon said: “This reflects the fact that indoor hospitality – despite the sector’s sterling efforts – remains a relatively risky environment, particularly later at night when people may be less likely to follow rules.
“A midnight closing time represents progress from level 1 and 2 but it will help mitigate the risk.”
The pubs trade said the curfew would “exacerbate the financial difficulty many hospitality businesses find themselves in”.
Emma McClarkin, CEO of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, added: “The sector has suffered the brunt of the restrictions for over a year now and this last-minute change is another blow to the trade.
“The Scottish Government must look at reversing this decision or allocate further economic support to the businesses impacted.”
Customers at hospitality venues will no longer be required to pre-book a two-hour slot to go to a pub or restaurant but will still be required to provide contact details to assist Test and Protect. Up to 200 people will be able to gather at weddings and funerals under the new rules.
Ms Sturgeon said “sensible precautions” had to be maintained while the vaccine programme continues to acknowledge the surge of cases brought on by the Delta variant of Covid-19.
Acknowledging a delay to workers returning to offices, Ms Sturgeon said “this will be disappointing for many businesses” as well as to “some employees who are finding home-working hard”.
She added: “This will reduce the extent to which people are meeting up in enclosed environments or travelling together, and so will help to contain transmission during this phase.”
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said the move to level 0 was “another encouraging milestone”.
But she added: “The fact remains though that the modified framework deviates away from what businesses had been preparing for and moving the goalposts at this late stage will cause uncertainty, negatively impacting on business confidence and recovery.
“The postponing of the phased return of offices will be a bitter blow for employees and employers alike, many of which had been getting ready to welcome employees back into offices from next week.
“This will also sound alarm bells for those town and city centre businesses, reliant on office worker footfall and custom, who now need to wait another month until those workers start to return.
“Scotland’s hospitality sector, one of the hardest hit by restrictions, will be concerned that anticipated restrictions were not lifted, including little reprieve for the night-time economy, with challenging restrictions on trading remaining.”
Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland policy chairman, Andrew McRae, added: “After a week of reading various signals from government and the data, small businesses do now have some clarity about the conditions in which they’ll be trading for the coming weeks.
“Probably the most important news was that physical distancing will be cut to one metre indoors. That will make a difference for smaller shops, pubs and cafes who find it very hard to trade profitably when the numbers allowed in their premises are so restricted.
“It’s less good news for things like the events sector, trying salvage something of what’s left of the summer, that we’re not seeing the complete end of social distancing outside.
“Removing the requirement to pre-book your slot at a hospitality venue premises should hopefully generate some extra passing trade. That said, they do need to keep collecting contact details for now.”
The First Minister said she remained hopeful Scotland will move ‘beyond level 0’ on August 9, as planned, which will include a “gradual” return to office working.
Ms Cameron said: “Our view is clear that we should continue on the path set out towards the lifting of all restrictions on August 9 as planned.
“The role of the Scottish and UK Government must evolve to enable businesses and communities to operate with autonomy, according to personal circumstances, business preferences and sectoral requirements.”
Business leaders have also admitted continuing rules to wear face masks could be “an acceptable price to pay” for the complete removal of social distancing rules next month.
Mr McRae added: “As important as today’s announcement is, the big key date is August 9 – and what the trading landscape looks like then.
“It’s important that any Covid requirements and regulations that remain after August 9 aren’t disproportionately challenging for smaller firms. And we will, of course, continue to contribute to the conversation about what the picture beyond level 0 should look like.
“It may well be, for example, that things such as the continued wearing of masks in certain situations are an acceptable price to pay for completely removing some of the difficult requirements around physical distancing.
“Whatever happens, we need to minimise the number of measures that remain in place and communicate them clearly to businesses and the public. A jumble of regulations, guidance and best practice all bumping into each other and confusing everyone is a recipe for trouble.
“We need clear, reliable messages from government about what is allowed and what things people do not need to do anymore.”