Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government would delay advising office workers to return until “beyond Level 0” – expected on August 9 – instead of when Scotland moved to Level 0 as was previously planned.
The country will take its next step out of lockdown on Monday, the First Minister said, with some changes to previous plans such as a nationwide midnight curfew for hospitality as well as the office delay.
But Dr Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC), stressed the impact the change would have on workplaces as well as town and city centre businesses, which have seen a remarkable drop in daytime footfall as a result of the pandemic.
“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,” she said.
“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: “Whilst we recognise the government’s desire for caution on encouraging workers back to offices, 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.”
The imposition of a midnight curfew on pubs and bars across Scotland instead of the planned move back to closing times as dictated by licensing was also described as “hugely disappointing” by hospitality chiefs.
Physical distancing of at least one metres will continue outdoors, the First Minister said, but weddings and funerals would see capacities rise to 200.
Reacting, Joe Crawford of CAMRA said the continuation of table service for many pubs would be bad news for struggling publicans.
He said: “Moving all parts of the country to Level 0 will certainly be welcomed but the continuation of table service, restrictions on groups and a midnight curfew is more grim news for hard-working publicans who are still struggling.
“This is also bitterly disappointing for consumers who are looking forward to a return to the authentic pub experience – with service at the bar and an end to restrictions on group sizes.
“Pubs matter to people and communities and deserve ongoing support from the Scottish Government until they can trade as normal once again.”
The concerns were echoed by the Scottish Beer and Pub Association who said the last-minute addition of a curfew was “another blow to the trade”.
The group’s chief executive Emma McClarkin added: “It is positive that we are to progress to Level 0, but the decision to maintain a curfew is hugely disappointing and will exacerbate the financial difficulty many hospitality businesses find themselves in.
"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.”
Leon Thompson, UKHospitality Scotland’s executive director said the move to level zero was “very welcome” and would leave many traders “relieved”.
However, he warned that hospitality continued to trade in a “very difficult environment”, adding it would not improve until all major restrictions are lifted.
He said: “Instead, businesses burdened with expensive short-term debt will continue to struggle, unable to break-even whilst ongoing and seemingly endless restrictions continue.”
Tracy Black, director of CBI Scotland, called on the Scottish Government to implement a ‘test and release’ system quickly in order to aid the retail and hospitality sector’s recovery.
She said: “Developing a more agile and responsive test and release system for self-isolation will be a key part of that. The removal of the requirement for contacts of positive cases to isolate from 9 August is welcome, but Covid-related absences are hitting firms hard now and impacting their ability to trade their way to recovery.
“The Scottish Government should work with the hardest hit sectors to introduce a test and release scheme as swiftly as possible.”
Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, added that the broad announcement would be a “big relief” to many businesses and that it was a “very important step forward”.
He said: “I know that the news of physical distancing requirements being reduced indoors to 1 metre will be a boost for those not yet permitted to trade with this measure in place, particularly the visitor attraction sector which has been hit particularly hard by regulations around social distancing; it remains the hope for all in the sector that social distancing requirements will be removed altogether from August 9, giving all businesses a better opportunity to trade profitably.
“It will be disappointing news today that the one metre distancing will remain outdoors for many of those business operating in the outdoor adventure and marine sector, especially as their counterparts south of the border are able to trade without this condition.
“There are understandably huge concerns across the industry in relation to the Scottish Government’s current self-isolation policy and the impact this is having on the ability for businesses to staff at required levels and in many cases, remain open.
"We are reassured by the Scottish Government’s commitment to removing the need for people to self-isolate if they are double vaccinated and come into close contact with a positive case.”