End of restrictions welcome but support needed

Hospitality industry reiterates calls for government backing as businesses rebuild

TRADE groups have broadly welcomed news that the remaining COVID restrictions in Scotland are to be phased out over the coming weeks, but say they are “disappointed” the requirements for face masks and contact tracing are to remain in place for a further month – and they have reiterated calls for business support and more positive messaging from government as the industry seeks to rebuild.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday that remaining measures will shift from law to guidance, with Scotland’s COVID vaccine passport scheme due to end on Monday (28th February) and the mandatory face mask and contact tracing rules expected to end on 21st March. She published an updated Strategic Framework (available here) outlining plans to class future COVID variants as either low, medium or high threat, depending on their severity and transmissibility, with the possibility of some restrictions being reimposed depending on the threat level.

Confirmation that existing measures are to end have been welcomed by trade groups, with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) describing the end of the vaccine passport scheme on Monday as “common sense”, but the group said it is disappointed that the legal requirements for face coverings and the collection of customer contact details are to remain in place until 21st March.

“Calling a halt to COVID passports is common sense and fantastic news for hospitality businesses, particularly the late-night sector where restrictions over the last two years have had such a severe impact,” said SLTA managing director Colin Wilkinson.

“However, the legal requirement to wear a face covering in indoor hospitality and other settings for another month is not the news we wanted to hear from the first minister at a time when our sector needs more positivity and confidence – confidence that will encourage customers to start getting out and about again.

“We are also way behind the rest of the UK in the process and that throws out confusing messaging to visitors to Scotland from south of the border – visitors who will support our hospitality businesses.

“It is encouraging for Scotland’s licensed hospitality venues to see more people returning to their offices and workplaces in recent months as this will breathe life back into our city and town centres – but let’s be more positive about the messaging.

“There is still a very, very long and uphill struggle ahead for many hospitality businesses with ongoing issues to overcome and an onus on the Scottish Government to support our industry which is key to the economy and jobs.”

That was echoed by the Scottish Beer & Pub Association (SBPA), which described the ending of restrictions as “an important milestone in the road to recovery for pubs”.

“Removing the remaining mitigations will give a real boost to the sector, however it is disappointing that it will be another month before we see the total removal of all these legal restrictions,” said a spokesman for the SBPA.

“As we move to living with COVID as an endemic virus it is important the pub and brewing sector receive the necessary support and guidance to ensure a strong and sustainable recovery. The industry faces a perfect storm of rising inflation, increased costs, supply chain difficulties, labour shortages, with a backdrop of record levels of debt.

“We’re urging governments in Holyrood and Westminster to support the sector’s recovery by continuing to reduce the punitive tax burden on our sector to ensure the sustainability of brewing and pubs, and help us regenerate our cities, towns and villages up and down the country.”

Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, also welcomed the Scottish Government’s decision to downgrade the remaining blanket restrictions to guidance in the coming weeks, describing it as “a significant step in the right direction”.

“In particular, we welcome the end to the COVID passport scheme and test and protect, which places a heavy bureaucratic burden on hospitality venues with little beneficial effect to protecting our customer’s health,” he said.

“There are a number of details which will require further thought and consultation, and we would have liked to see a clearer and faster transition to the end of restrictions and mandatory use of masks, as keeping these for a further month does nothing for rebuilding consumer confidence.

“Our focus now turns to restoring public confidence in Scotland’s much-loved hospitality venues and focusing entirely on supporting our sector to recover.”

The end of legal restrictions was also welcomed by Leon Thompson, UK Hospitality Scotland executive director. However, he said it is “disappointing” that the compulsory use of face coverings and test and protect will remain until 21st March.

“Again, it would be better to let businesses and customers decide on the best way to manage risk sooner,” he said.

“The updated strategic framework sets out a plan for living with COVID but we are some way off from Scotland’s hospitality sector recovering from two years of restrictions and closures.

“With costs rising across the board and a VAT rise due this April – just as the wider cost of living crisis is set to heighten – businesses in the sector still need support. At the very least, we need the UK Government to commit to keeping VAT at 12.5% beyond April and the Scottish Government to extend business rate relief of 50% by at least a further three months.”

A spokeswoman for the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) Scotland: “While we welcome the news that remaining restrictions such as COVID passports and the legal requirement to wear face masks will be dropped in coming weeks, the economic harm inflicted on the late night economy by twenty four months of disproportionate restrictions will take years to recover from.

“We must now be given the opportunity to trade consistently and viably for the long term if businesses are to survive, and Scottish Government must now focus on generating a sustainable recovery. It is vital that government now work with businesses to create a more favourable trading environment which enables at least partial recovery of the billions of pounds lost during this crisis.”