Business groups warn Nicola Sturgeon taking Scotland from 'lockdown to slowdown'

Key business groups have warned the decision to keep nearly three million people in level two could be the “final straw” for local businesses as Scotland goes from “lockdown to slowdown”.

Hospitality and retail groups warned of the negative impact on business of the decision to keep parts of Scotland in level two beyond Friday.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross labelled council areas set to stay in level two as being “stuck in limbo”, warning the First Minister that people are “at the end of their tether”.

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However, the decision to keep 14 council areas in level two, including Edinburgh, Dundee and Stirling, is part of a wider Scottish Government strategy intended to stave off a potential third wave of Covid-19 caused by the so-called Indian variant.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced the Scottish Government's approach to restriction relaxation in Glasgow and Scotland-wide.

Prior to the announcement in Holyrood on Tuesday, Scotland was set to move down on a nationwide basis to level one by Tuesday, with a further move to level zero by the end of the month.

The date for a move to level one nationwide is now firmly in doubt.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government confirmed that no further review points on Covid restrictions are scheduled until June 28.

Nicola Sturgeon announced level two would continue to apply to those in Edinburgh, Midlothian, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, all three Ayrshires, North and South Lanarkshire, Clackmannanshire and Stirling.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and deputy first minister John Swinney arrive for the statement at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

She also confirmed Glasgow would move to level two as planned at midnight on Friday after more than eight months in some of the strictest restrictions in the UK.

The Highlands, Argyll and Bute, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, East and West Lothian, West Dunbartonshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Scottish Borders will all move to level one at midnight on Friday, Holyrood was told.

The SNP leader added that Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and other islands currently in level one will move down to level zero at midnight on Friday.

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Ms Sturgeon said: “In areas where cases are relatively high or rising, our judgment is that a slight slowing down of the easing of restrictions, to allow time for more people to be fully vaccinated, will help protect our progress overall.

"However, it is also our judgment that with case numbers as high as they are in these areas and with a substantial proportion of adults not yet double dosed – it is safer, and more likely to protect our progress overall, if we hold these areas in level two for a further period.”

She added: “That means protecting the NHS can’t just be about preventing it from being completely overwhelmed, although that is of course vital. It must also be about protecting its ability to get services back to normal.

“So even although the health service ‘coped’ earlier this year, when more than 2,000 people were in hospital – albeit with enormous pressure on the workforce – that shouldn’t be our benchmark. Anything remotely like that again would set back efforts to get the NHS operating normally again.

“So this is a key and difficult moment. We remain on the right track overall. I remain confident that – with cautious, albeit difficult decisions now – we will enjoy much greater normality over the summer and beyond.”

The move to level one will allow eight rather than six people from up to three households to socialise indoors, and allows groups of 12 from 12 households to socialise outdoors in these areas.

It will also see hospitality allowed to open indoors until 11pm, with the same restrictions on the number of households socialising as above.

The move to level two for Glasgow will see those living in the city able to welcome visitors, family members and friends into their homes for the first time in more than eight months.

Ms Sturgeon said that pre-vaccination rollout, moving to relax restrictions with case numbers as high as those experienced by Scotland would have been impossible.

Further work on life in Scotland after level zero will also be published in coming weeks, she said.

The First Minister said: “That reflects the fact that we are in a transition phase. The vaccines make the outlook positive, but the new variant means the road ahead is still potentially bumpy. So caution is necessary.

“That said, no part of the country is going backwards today. Before the vaccines, that would have been impossible on case numbers like this.

“But the vaccines are changing the game and that means we can still be optimistic about our chances of much more normality over the summer and beyond.

“Indeed, in the days ahead, and while it may still feel a way off for many of us, we will publish more detailed work on what we expect life beyond level zero to look like, as that greater normality returns.”

The delay to the wider relaxation of restrictions was met with disappointment by the hospitality and retail sector.

Andrew McRae, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, said the decision was two steps forward and one step back for businesses.

He said: “Firms and communities in the rest of the country will be frustrated that progress has stalled.

“We’ve gone from lockdown to slowdown, and patience and cash reserves are in short supply. The Scottish Government’s next priority must be to outline how they’ll get all of the country’s smaller firms and self-employed back on their feet.

“From the start of July, the furlough scheme will begin to get wound down, but it looks like businesses in Scotland will still face substantial trading restrictions. This could be the final straw for many local operators, and decision-makers in Edinburgh and London must avoid this crunch point.

"Further, we need to get urgent financial help to firms who took on workers in anticipation of greater freedoms, but now can’t furlough these employees.”

Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, criticised the Scottish Government for moving the goalposts around the data required for the lifting of restrictions for hospitality and called for a change of approach.

He said: “It’s a bit ironic that just a week before the Euros kick off, the government has moved the goalposts yet again. It’s even worse when you consider that they’re allowing a fan zone to go live where alcohol will be served to 6,000 people a day.

“The further reduction in hospitalised Covid admissions shows that the vaccination effort is working, so surely case numbers don’t matter if those people who do test positive remain fit and healthy.

"We don’t place restrictions on entire cities when it’s winter flu season, so why on earth are we doing it now? And how can businesses trust what the government is saying about the future when the objectives keep changing.”

Tracy Black, director of CBI Scotland, added: "While support from the UK and Scottish governments has helped to keep many firms afloat, nothing can compete with normal trading and businesses will be looking to claw back revenues lost over the past 12 months.

“For those areas that remain under tighter restrictions, owners and staff will have their fingers crossed that health data allows for a further easing of restrictions in the very near future. Firms across the country are also looking for clarity as soon as possible on the Scottish Government’s plans for social distancing requirements and Covid-status certification for the weeks and months ahead.”

Responding to the announcement, Mr Ross said the decision not to move Scotland to level one as a whole was a “disappointing setback”, adding that it left many parts of the country “stuck in limbo”.

Calling for a hyperlocal approach to further outbreaks of Covid-19, the Scottish Conservative leader said “people really are at the end of their tether”.

He said: “Everyone understands that there will be a need for local, targeted measures when an outbreak occurs.

“But leaving behind whole areas should be ruled out. Sweeping measures that unnecessarily hurt a whole city or council area are unfair on businesses and local people waiting to get on with their lives.

“Selectively imposing restrictions and targeting resources at smaller areas is entirely possible. The blanket council-wide approach is not the only plausible option.

“The one-size-fits-all approach should be replaced by targeted interventions to tackle local outbreaks.”

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, called for “protocols” based on the approach in Glasgow to be designed for when areas become Covid-19 hotspots elsewhere.

He also called for mass vaccination centres for those over the age of 18.

Mr Sarwar said: “Those protocols must include walk-in vaccination centres for everyone aged over 18, the mass rollout of PCR tests, increased support for local businesses, and greater access to isolation support grants.

"That must be our first port of call in future outbreaks, not further lockdowns which damage the economy and have a negative effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

The First Minister said 478 positive cases had been registered in the 24 hours to Tuesday, with test positivity at 3.1 per cent.

A total of 106 people are in hospital, down four from Monday, with 10 people in ICU, up two.

No new deaths were reported.

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