NICOLA Sturgeon has warned her government is “likely to advise against booking Easter holidays” – as a new tiered exit strategy is being drawn up by officials.
Business leaders warned that many hospitality firms will be left “bitterly disappointed” that they are unlikely to open their doors before Easter.
The First Minister told MSPs that the Scottish Government is “currently preparing a revised strategic framework”, which she said “will set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from lockdown”.
The document is expected to be made public next Tuesday.
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She said: “It will aim to set out how we will use and balance all the tools at our disposal – restrictions and advice, vaccination, test and protect, and travel restrictions – to restore, on a phased basis, greater normality to our everyday lives.
“It will set out as far as possible the conditions that we think need to be met, in terms of the data, for us to start lifting restrictions.
“It will detail the broad order of priority for re-opening, including what a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.”
Ms Sturgeon announced that the “stay at home” lockdown “will remain in place until at least the beginning of March”.
The First Minister stressed that “even a slight easing of restrictions now could cause cases to start rising rapidly again”, adding “we have to be extremely cautious” when unlocking restrictions.
The First Minister did not go into specific details of the way out of lockdown but she warned that “we are likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland”, stressing that “it is highly unlikely that we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then”.
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She added: “However, for the summer, while it is still highly unlikely that overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be – but this will depend on the data nearer the time.”
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that easing the lockdown is “likely to be even more cautious than it was last summer”, and the strategy “must be driven much more by data than dates”.
She added: “If we open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates, we do risk setting our progress back.”
Liz Cameron chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said that traders need “a clear routemap for the easing of lockdown restrictions”.
She added:“Hospitality businesses who might have been holding out hope for a small lifeline in the form of some limited, domestic tourist trade come Easter will be bitterly disappointed. The fact they will have invested so much in making premises safe and risk catastrophe without being able to trade is still falling on deaf ears.
“A revised strategic framework providing a routemap on the opening back of the economy is long overdue, but we will continue to work with Scottish Government to ensure jobs are not low down the list of trade-offs.
“What Scottish businesses desperately need is the confidence to plan, hire and invest and give certainty to our employees and to our customers as to when we can expect to open our doors again.”
Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland policy chair, said: “We welcome the news that ministers will detail the conditions that need to be met before a wider re-opening, but we’d urge them to provide dates, however provisional.
“A draft timeline would allow many debt-laden operators to put in place measures to give them the best chance of surviving. We can’t see local businesses collapse during the final mile of this marathon just because they don’t know the finish line is around the corner.”
The First Minister said “we are now seeing fewer Covid patients in hospital and fewer requiring intensive care treatment”, while test positivity rates have “also declined significantly” – from around 11% at the beginning of January to around 6% now.
But Ms Sturgeon warned that “even after six weeks of lockdown”, case numbers “have only just returned to the levels that were being recorded in early December”.
She added: “We are seeing some signs that cases might be falling more slowly now than was the case a few weeks ago.
“A key factor here may be that the new, more infectious, variant of the virus is accounting for an increasing proportion of all new cases – as of now, it the new variant is responsible for more than 80% of new cases being identified.
“We already know – from experience in the autumn, and again in December – just how easily the virus can run away from us when there is a high baseline of transmission within the community.”