Covid Scotland: High streets ‘need help’ as return to offices delayed

Business leaders described a delay announced yesterday to workers returning to offices as a "bitter blow" for employers and employees amid calls for further support for Scotland's ailing high streets.

In an update to MSPs at a virtually recalled Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the mainland will move to the lowest level of coronavirus restrictions from Monday.

It will be the first time the whole of Scotland has been subject to the same level of restrictions since September 1, 2020, when Glasgow was subject to restrictions on indoor meetings.

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The move to Level 0 includes changes to the Scottish Government’s plans, including the imposition of a midnight curfew on indoor hospitality, and a delay in the return to office work.

Firms had been hoping for a return to offices from next week
Firms had been hoping for a return to offices from next week

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Dr Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC), said: “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.”

Ewan McDonald-Russell, the head of policy at the Scottish Retail Consortium, added: “It is likely this will further push back the recovery for city centres and high streets where footfall remains almost a third lower than pre-pandemic levels.

“The Scottish Government needs to be prepared to consider how best to support struggling retailers if the return back to normal trading continues to take longer than anticipated.”

Nicola Sturgeon addressing a virtual sitting of the Scottish Parliament yesterday

The First Minister also announced that physical distancing of one metre will continue to apply outdoors instead of the planned removal of any restrictions around outdoor gatherings.

As part of the changes, Scots will be allowed to meet up to ten people from four households in a public place, and eight people from four households at home.

The limit on the number of people at outdoor gatherings will rise to 15 people from 15 households.

All indoor contact sport is also permitted in Level 0 and capacity at stadiums will increase to 2,000 outdoors and 400 indoors.

The number of people allowed to attend weddings and funerals will also jump to 200.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Lifting all restrictions and mitigations right now would put all of us at greater risk - but in particular it would make it much more difficult for the most clinically vulnerable to go about their normal lives.

"It would risk the imposition of shielding by default and that is not something we should do.

“The Scottish Government understands the temptation to lift more restrictions more quickly - of course we do.

“But in our view, and in line with clinical advice and modelling, a gradual approach stands the best chance of minimising further health harm and loss of life and because a gradual approach also stands the best chance of being sustainable, it will be better in the long term for the economy too. So we will continue to ease restrictions - but we will do so carefully.”

The First Minister also announced the Scottish Government’s intention to remove the requirement for double vaccinated people to isolate should they be a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case.

A two week gap from the second dose and a negative PCR test is required for double vaccinated people to avoid self-isolation.

Ms Sturgeon added that the government is also looking at whether it is possible to remove self-isolation from young people in schools, adding advice would be published “well in advance” of schools returning.

She added that double vaccinated people returning from amber list countries will also be allowed to avoid self-isolation provided they take a PCR test on the second day after arriving into Scotland.

The SNP leader also criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to make the wearing face coverings a personal choice rather than law.

She said: "It is my view that if government believes measures like this matter - and we do - we should say so, do what is necessary to ensure compliance, and take any resulting flak from those who disagree.

“We shouldn’t lift important restrictions to make our lives easier and then expect the public to take responsibility for doing the right thing anyway.”

Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross raised questions around the failure of the Test and Protect system to meet World Health Organisation targets.

He also highlighted the number of vaccine doses was the worst for three months and called on the First Minister to confirm that the planned lifting of restrictions on August 9 will go ahead, regardless of the vaccine programme’s progress.

He said: “Now is time to move forward, we can’t continue asking the public to sacrifice so much of their lives when we promised them that the vaccine would bring an end to restrictions.

"The balance has to tilt further in favour of moving forward, we have to make progress back to normality.

"The public have done what is expected of them, now it is time for this SNP government to deliver and hold up their end of the bargain.”

Ms Sturgeon insisted Scotland was moving at a “responsible pace”.

Anas Sarwar also called on Ms Sturgeon to move faster with the vaccine rollout, calling on the Scottish Government to ignore JCVI advice and reduce the gap between vaccine doses from eight weeks to four, in line with WHO and manufacturer’s advice.

He said: “There is no doubt in the inconsistent decision making and the inconsistent communications over the past few weeks has had a negative impact on the pandemic response.

"I’m afraid what the First Minister’s presented today is not a clear strategy to cope with the new phase of the pandemic. This phase needs a new approach.

"She needs to listen to the WHO on vaccines. The vaccine is working, but it is not winning the race with the virus.

"Will the government now move to a four week gap between vaccines as recommended by the WHO, as recommended by manufacturers and has been led by other countries around the world?”

Rejecting Mr Sarwar’s suggestion as “unthinkable” and labelling the Scottish Labour leader “irresponsible”, Ms Sturgeon said it was right for the Scottish Government to follow JCVI guidance and claimed the advisory group was discussing whether to reduce the gap from eight weeks to four.

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