Hospitality leaders demand ‘clarity’ on social distancing future as Scottish Government faces legal challenge

Hospitality leaders have demanded urgent “clarity” on the future of social distancing restrictions as the Scottish Government faces a legal challenge lodged on behalf of embattled nightclubs and bars.

CBI Scotland has today called on the UK and Scottish governments to provide greater clarity on the future direction of social distancing to help boost Scotland’s recovery.

The plea comes as key hospitality leaders voiced their support for the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), which has announced plans to take legal action over coronavirus restrictions.

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In a statement, the NTIA accused the Scottish Government of offering “wholly inadequate” support and claimed 39,000 jobs were now at risk.

Nightclubs in other parts of Europe, such as this one in Sofia, have already opened their doors to a 50 per cent capacity limit following months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

The group has argued the curbs are “no longer justifiable or proportionate” and claims their continuation would be a breach of the Human Rights Act.

Under Scotland’s existing Covid rules, people are now able to meet others for a meal or drink, with up to six people from two households allowed to socialise indoors in a public place such as a cafe or restaurant.

But venues need to close indoors at 8pm and alcohol can only be served outside.

Roddy Dunlop QC – the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates – is leading the legal challenge to seek a judicial review on whether the measures are still valid.

Speaking on behalf of 190,000 businesses in the UK, the CBI claimed a consistent “four nations” approach was needed now to ease social distancing and help businesses all over Scotland facing uncertainty.

CBI Scotland director Tracy Black said: “The ongoing success of the vaccination roll-out, alongside guidance from the UK and Scottish governments, have provided firm foundations for the safe and gradual reopening of the economy.

"Indicative timings have proven invaluable in helping businesses to forward plan and develop contingencies with confidence.

“But with considerable uncertainty still ahead, firms are anxiously awaiting big decisions from government that will impact the way they run their businesses over the coming months.

“With workplaces operating well short of full capacity, the future of social distancing is a key piece of the recovery jigsaw and will affect all of our lives."

Cafes, beer gardens, non-essential shops and museums reopened in Scotland on Monday, but hospitality venues are subject to tighter restrictions meaning they must close at 8pm indoors.

There will be further easing on May 17 to allow cinemas, theatres, concert halls, music venues, comedy clubs, amusement arcades and bingo halls to open with capacity limits.

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The calls by CBI Scotland comes with the NTIA challenging the ongoing use of social distancing through legal action, claiming the pandemic “no longer presents the threat” it did months ago.

The body said: “The hospitality sector in general, and late-night sector in particular, has been driven to the edge of insolvency by the severe restrictions in place since the start of the pandemic.

“Scottish Government support has been wholly inadequate to compensate for operating losses and a majority of businesses have now incurred unsustainable debt as a result.

“Even worse, all strategic framework funding has now ended while there is no end date for the restrictions that make these businesses commercially unviable. [A total of] 39,000 jobs are now at risk as a direct result.

“The reality is that the current emergency restrictions on opening, capacity, activities and operating hours make thousands of businesses commercially unviable.

“Social distancing is toxic for businesses across numerous sectors of the economy, from restaurants, pubs and bars, wedding suppliers, music venues, nightclubs, coach tours, travel, and tourism, and many more.

“We accept that restrictions were initially necessary in the interests of public health, and indeed we not only fully supported previous measures taken, but also actively promoted the government’s public health messages via social media channels and to our customer base.”

The NTIA have now claimed the existing restrictions are “no longer justifiable” and allege they are in breach of the Human Rights Act.

The body has retained the services of TLT Solicitors and the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop QC, to argue its case “in court at the earliest practical opportunity”.

Paul Waterson, a spokesperson for the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said his organisation backed the legal action.

He said: “If you consider the predicament that nightclubs and that group that NTIA represent, they have been left in limbo, they are the forgotten people.

“They have been treated very harshly in this whole episode.

“Many of them are right down to the bare reserves they have got. Many of them have taken out loans and they have got nowhere to run.

“We would certainly support them in what they are doing.”

Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said his group would be “keeping a close eye” on the case.

He said: “We have every sympathy with how frustrated, desperate and fearful many in the night-time sector are feeling right now.

“They’re quite within their rights to use our legal system to question if the government has made decisions properly.

“Thousands of jobs right across Scotland are at stake and we’re on the record repeatedly about our own concerns on the failure of ministers to understand the sector properly.”

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie called for the industry to get more support.

He said: "The hospitality sector finds itself in quite a bind. Even though restrictions are gradually being eased, many venues are still not able to operate in a manner that will allow them to keep their heads above water.

"The Scottish Government need to ensure that financial support is in place to enable firms to survive. We must not face a fresh wave of unemployment just as the public health crisis recedes."

Scottish Conservative economy spokesman Maurice Golden claimed the night-time industry had been “left in the dark by the SNP”.

She said: “There is a complete lack of clarity about how they can look ahead to re-opening in the coming weeks and months.

“Vital jobs and livelihoods are at great risk in the night time economy. It shouldn’t have reached a situation where the industry are now threatening to take legal action.

“Throughout this pandemic the SNP have failed to engage with businesses and have been too slow to get funding out the door."

Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray said: “As we reopen the economy we must ensure that we are led by the science.

“But as much as is possible this must mean clear rules for business owners – regardless of which sector of the economy or part of the UK they find themselves in.

“The night-time economy is a vital part of towns and cities across Scotland and employs thousands of people.

“The industry have been crying out for meaningful engagement from the Scottish government and they’ve had none.”

The Scottish Government extended 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for retail, leisure, hospitality and aviation businesses for this financial year, and also awarded one-off grants for nightclubs of up to £50,000.

The Strategic Framework Business Fund (SFBF) also provided grants to businesses that were required to close by law, such as nightclubs.

In a statement, the Scottish Government said: "We all want to get back to normal as soon as it is safely possible, but we must move very carefully to ensure continued suppression of the virus.”

The statement added: "Nightclubs were eligible and will have now received restart grants of up to £19,500, equivalent to more than six-months support provided by SFBF every four weeks."

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