Nicola Sturgeon’s hospitality shutdown has descended into chaos hours before it is due to come into force after her government failed to define which eateries were able to stay open if they stopped serving alcohol.
The First Minister offered a last-minute reprieve to licensed cafes in the Central Belt on Thursday, saying they could stay open if they did not sell alcoholic drinks, but failed to define which outlets would be deemed 'cafes', 'restaurants' or 'bars'.
This prompted confusion across the industry, with desperate business owners questioning whether their outlets were cafes and allowed to stay open or restaurants and therefore must shut for 16 days at 6pm this evening. Pub owners serving food also questioned why the exemption could not be extended to them if they operated on a dry basis.
The confusion deepened on Thursday night after Jason Leitch, Scotland's national clinical director, said it would be up to council environmental health officers to decide and enforce the rules, contradicting Ms Sturgeon's statement only hours earlier when she said a "specific exemption" for cafes would be set out in regulations.
However, the prospect of a further lockdown was branded “unacceptable” by business leaders, who warned that it would take the economy “back to square one”.
A move to “keep switching the lights of the economy on and off” would risk not just jobs but the wellbeing of entire communities, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce warned.
On Monday, a further 697 people were reported as having tested positive for coronavirus in Scotland over the previous 24 hours, with cases also on the rise among the highly vulnerable elderly population. Among the 75-84 age group, the number of positive cases rose to the highest levels since the middle of May. There has been a sharp rise in the number of people in hospital with the virus over recent days.
Ms Sturgeon was due to agree a “package” of new restrictions with her scientific advisers on Monday afternoon before presenting them to her cabinet on Tuesday morning. They could be announced at Holyrood as soon as Tuesday afternoon.
Over recent days, ministers and Scottish Government advisers have repeatedly talked up the prospect of a “short, sharp shock” to the spread of the virus, in the form of temporary restrictions, that could “buy time” ahead of winter.
Documents leaked a fortnight ago ago show that among the other measures under consideration for a two-week lockdown were the reintroduction of the stay at home message, the closure of entertainment venues such as cinemas and shutting hairdressers.
The First Minister said that no final decision had been taken. She said the term circuit breaker could mean "a number of things" and that it "could well be" that any new measures would not be as severe as the full lockdown the UK went into in March.
However, it would leave the Scottish public facing significantly tighter restrictions on their lives than those in other parts of the UK.
A blanket ban on going to other people’s homes is already in force north of the border, a measure that has only been adopted on a localised basis in England.
Warning that new measures may be needed in the “near future”, Ms Sturgeon said: “It is vital we do everything we can to get the situation under control, of course in a proportional way.
“I know nobody wants to be contemplating these restrictions right now, I don’t want to be contemplating these restrictions. But we know from experience that getting this virus under control as quickly as possible helps to save lives. Counter to that is not acting to get it under control costs lives that would otherwise be saved, so this really matters.
"If we decide extra restrictions are necessary, it is because we deem it vital to get the virus under control and avoid unnecessary loss of life."
While Ms Sturgeon said economic considerations would be taken into account, the prospect of further nationwide measures have horrified businesses.
She singled out the hospitality sector - pubs, restaurants, bars and cafes - as an area in which “we may have to go further for a period”. She has previously hinted strongly that she would have closed pubs again by now, had she had more economic powers to support the businesses.
Gregor Smith, the Chief Medical Officer, said that shopping, social spaces in workplaces as well as hospitality venues had been linked to the recent surge in cases, alongside meeting indoors.
Adam Tomkins, a Scottish Tory MSP, said: "If this isn’t a damning indictment of Sturgeon’s failed strategy, I don’t know what is." Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said pubs and bars were being treated like "Sodom and Gomorrah."
Unveiling her blueprint, Ms Sturgeon admitted that "in many respects" it represented a "backward step" but insisted it was not a lockdown as "we are living much more freely now than in the spring and early summer."
She said the restrictions were "intended to be short, sharp action to arrest a worrying increase in infection".
"Without them, there is a risk the virus will be out of control by the end of this month," she told MSPs.
Ms Sturgeon announced that in the Central Belt contact sports, with the exception of professional sport, outdoor live events and group exercise activities will be banned. Gyms will remain open for individual exercise.
The First Minister also unveiled plans for a review of her government's testing strategy and a new "strategic framework setting out the different levels of intervention which can be adopted in the future, either locally or across Scotland." This will be put to a vote in parliament.
People drink outdoors in Pitlochry as Nicola Sturgeon unveils new restrictions
People drink outdoors in Pitlochry as Nicola Sturgeon unveils new restrictions CREDIT: Reuters
But Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said: "This is not a 'short, sharp shock', rather a crippling stranglehold that will result in many Scottish pubs and restaurants unable to reopen in lockdown areas if this becomes indefinite."
Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses' Scotland policy chair, said: "Without sufficient support from government, today’s moves could mean last orders for many independent pubs and restaurants."
Tracy Black, CBI Scotland director, said the latest restrictions were "a crushing blow for a vital part of the Scottish economy" and it was "deeply disappointing" that Ms Sturgeon ordered firms to close without providing details of financial support.
Liz Cameron, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief executive, said: "A complete and utter lack of consultation with business only serves to compound the blows of these restrictions.
“We simply cannot continue to keep switching the lights of the economy on and off. Where is the plan to show that this action will stop the spread and where is the plan to manage working and living with the risks of this pandemic in the medium term are questions businesses are asking."
David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium Director, said: "The current approach falls well short of what is required."
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories' Holyrood leader, said: "A one-day consultation after today’s announcement – and just hours before businesses are forced to close their doors - is just not good enough.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "These complex set of measures are being rushed through at break neck speed and look more like a panicked knee jerk reaction than a considered, debated and agreed strategy. "
Johann Lamont, the former Scottish Labour leader, told Ms Sturgeon those "responsible for the kite flying and briefing over the last few weeks" should be "ashamed of themselves."
But Ms Sturgeon said: "The people she is inviting me to 'sort out', I guess the people she's referring to are advisers to me and the government who right now are working around the clock to try and help this country through a pandemic."