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Statement to MSPs

Businesses urge clarity as Sturgeon eases restrictions

The return to offices has been delayed

Businesses are seeking clarity on how they should operate after Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that Scotland’s Covid-19 restrictions can be eased.

The First Minister said Scotland will move to level 0 next week with “modifications” and the government remained on track to remove most restrictions by 9 August.

However, there will continue to be limits on outdoor meetings, and the return of workers to offices is to be delayed.

Mandatory wearing of face coverings will continue to offer protection to those who remain vulnerable, but a fully vaccinated person will no longer have to go into isolation if they meet a coronavirus carrier. 

Ms Sturgeon told a recalled session of the Scottish Parliament that “lifting all restrictions right now would put all of us at greater risk.”

A small businesses leader later welcomed the latest moves, but warned the government that “a jumble of regulations, guidance and best practice all bumping into each other and confusing everyone is a recipe for trouble.”

Another said the latest proposals showed the government had not listened last time and was not listening now.

The move to level zero means up to 15 people from 15 households can meet outdoors, and up to 200 can attend weddings and funerals.

Up to eight adults from four households can meet indoors at home, and up to 10 can meet in a pub or restaurant, with no need to pre-book a two-hour slot but will still have to supply contact details for test and protect purposes.

Face coverings will still be required except when seated. Hospitality venues can stay open until midnight.

The size of events will remain limited – to 2,000 seated, 1,000 standing outdoors, 400 indoors. Larger events will now be possible. Some physical distancing rules are to be maintained outdoors, with different groups of 15 required to stay at least 1m (3ft 3in) apart in public spaces – meaning there may be limits on some outdoor events.

Organisers can petition the government for bigger attendances and Celtic FC are in the process of requesting a larger number be allowed to attend their upcoming Champions League qualifier against Midtjylland on 21 July.

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Ms Sturgeon said the plan was on track to move beyond level 0 on 9 August, the point at which the government aimed to scrap most legal restrictions.

“We must stick to a cautious approach. We are easing restrictions next week, but we are not abandoning them,” she said.

“And even when we move beyond level zero, we will continue to require some baseline measures such as face coverings.”

Business are demanding an end to inconsistent rules and guidance during months of stop-start lockdowns which have caused disruption at short notice, wasted supplies and an ability to plan for reopening.

Stephen Montgomery, group spokesperson, Scottish Hospitality Group, was unimpressed by the changes.

“The midnight curfew is just a made-up time with no evidence to justify it as our FOI enquiry earlier in the year proved,” he said.

“The government didn’t seek our input as the people who understand how hospitality works in the real world. And we didn’t even get the courtesy of being told about this in our ongoing discussions with the government.

“It’s like Groundhog Day with our warnings about driving people into house parties and other uncontrolled spaces that lack all the precautions you find in responsible pubs, restaurants and hotels. The government didn’t listen last year when we cautioned them about this and they’re not listening now.

“The hospitality sector can be part of the solution not part of the problem. It’s tragic that the government doesn’t seem to see us that way.”  

Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers chief executive, Fiona Campbell, noted the continuation of inconsistencies. She said: “Bizarrely, the message that our sector is receiving, in lieu of actual help, is that it’s fine for thousands of people to gather around a football pitch but not for more than eight vaccinated people to gather round the table of a nice, clean property in the Highlands.” 

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland policy chairman, Andrew McRae, said: “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.

Andrew McRae

Andrew McRae: ‘We need clear, reliable messages’

“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.”

Mr McRae added: “It’s important that any Covid requirements and regulations that remain after 9 August aren’t disproportionately challenging for smaller firms.

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“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.”

Tracy Black, CBI Scotland director, said: “Many firms that have been planning carefully for the safe, phased reopening of offices from next week will be disappointed to see the work from home message remain in place.”

This view was echoed by Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, who said: “The postponing of the phased return of offices will be a bitter blow for employees and employers alike, many of whom 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 MacDonald-Russell, Scottish Retail Consortium head of policy, said: 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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier confirmed the reopening of the economy in England will go ahead from next Monday (19 July) but warned Covid curbs could return in September if new freedoms are abused.

He said most restrictions will be axed but insisted caution was vital.

He added: “I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough – this pandemic is not over. This disease coronavirus continues to carry risks for you and for your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday, July 19, to life as it was before Covid.”

The reopening announcement came as a relief, but Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “They still don’t have  the full picture they desperately need to properly plan for unlocking. 

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“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources. 

“Without clear guidance there  could be real uncertainty on how companies should operate from July 19 and what they should be doing to keep staff and customers safe.   

“This could lead to an inconsistent approach with different businesses reopening at different times, and with different requirements, which could damage public confidence, give firms a huge logistical headache and create a real risk of the economic recovery splintering.”  

She added:   “Firms have been told to make their own judgements on which COVID secure measures to keep and which to ditch. But they are not public health experts and guidance from Government is needed. 

“In particular, the government must give clarity on the  issues of  employment law, health and safety requirements  and liability. Firms  need to know what will happen if they remove some, or all, COVID-safety measures  and then have a large  outbreak linked to their premises.” 

Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry said: “We want all small businesses and their customers to feel safe in how they shop and operate, and this includes allowing small businesses the space to make the right decisions about their premises. 

“We cannot allow removing legal guidance to create a free for all, with any voluntary guidance ignored, which is why it is vital that clarity around the new state of play is given immediately.”

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