Yesterday (16 March), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out Scotland's roadmap out of lockdown, which will see restrictions on both indoor and outdoor hospitality settings begin to ease on 26 April.
On that date the country will return to a regional system of restrictions, with all parts of the country expected be able to move to Level 3 - the second-highest level on the country’s five-stage scale.
This will allow restaurants, pubs and cafés to reopen for outdoor and 'limited' indoor service.
"At least we do now have a plan," says Willie Macleod, UKHospitality Scotland executive director.
"A nationwide lifting of controls, rather than the previous local system, will be simpler and give businesses the clarity they need. After such a devastating year for hospitality, it is encouraging to see light at the end of the tunnel and dates that we can begin to work towards."
A welcome relief
Broadly, businesses have reacted favourably to the First Minister's announcement, relieved to finally have some clarity as to when they will be able to reopen their doors.
"This is much needed announcement as businesses must plan, invest, retrain, educate and prepare to reopen in 2021 after a devastating second wave of Coronavirus," says Nic Wood, owner of Edinburgh-based pub, bar and restaurant collection Signature Group.
"For most of the central belt, we have not served alcohol since 8 October 2020 and whilst we won’t be popping champagne corks, to enable people to enjoy a cocktail with a main meal is progress and demonstrates a degree of trust from the First Minister in the behaviours of the general public and operators."
Under amended Level 3 restrictions, outdoor hospitality settings will be able to reopen and welcome groups of up to six people from three households. Alcohol will be permitted and there will be no requirement for food to be served, but outdoor areas will remain subject to a 10pm curfew.
Limited indoor service will also be allowed for the sale of food and non-alcoholic drinks for groups of up to four people from no more than two households, with an 8pm curfew in place.
Hotels and other accommodation businesses will also be able to reopen from 26 April, but are expected to remain subject to wider hospitality restrictions.
"We very much welcome the indicative timelines as set out by the First Minister," says Tanja Lister, who owns the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland and recently launched the Hospitality & Tourism Action Group to try and pressure the Scottish Government into following a similar reopening path to that outlined for England by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"After a bruising year, we’re eagerly awaiting to reopen our doors once more and welcome back our much-missed guests.
“Whilst it has inevitably been, and continues to be, a challenging time, the messages of support and the pent up demand have carried us through this. The last year has underlined the key role that hospitality and tourism plays as part of our way of life and also well-being. We will be ready with that famous Highland welcome just as soon as restrictions lift."
'Significant disappointment' at ongoing restrictions
Frustratingly for businesses, even as the sector unlocks it will still be subject to various operating restrictions.
“There is going to be significant disappointment from businesses that hospitality will be so tightly restricted in the first weeks of the reopening," says Macleod.
"We had proposed [to the Scottish Government] that alcohol be served indoors with a meal, so for that not to be allowed is a major disappointment. Restricting outdoor spaces to just six people from three households will likewise be a significant barrier to viability.
"The curfews, 10pm for outdoors and 8pm for indoors, will also seriously restrict businesses’ ability to break even. These businesses are, in many cases, only just clinging on."
A broader reopening of indoor hospitality is planned for 17 May - the same as England - with alcohol sales allowed, but the same social contact rules in place.
The curfew on indoor settings will be eased to 10:30pm on this date, but guests will be limited to just a two-hour dwell time.
Sturgeon added that she hoped all of Scotland would be able to move to Level 1 restrictions, with hospitality only subject to an 11pm curfew and allowed to host groups of six people from up to three households, by early June, moving to Level 0, which would see the lifting of curfew measures, by the end of June.
It recently came to light that the Scottish Government has not produced or sourced any specific evidence to support restrictions on Scotland’s hospitality sector.
In a freedom of information (FOI) response to a request submitted by the Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG), the Government said that "neither the Scottish Government, the Chief Medical Officer's Advisory Group nor SAGE have produced evidence papers on a sectoral basis".
It added that instead the Government had used 'scientific evidence on transmission' coupled with the social and economic benefits of particular sectors to make decisions.
“Hospitality played no part in the second wave and the Government recently confirmed it had no evidence to justify the restrictions on the sector," says Stephen Montgomery, group spokesperson for the SHG.
"Despite that, the Government is persisting with two fundamental flaws in its approach to easing restrictions. The first is that alcohol is still taking the blame with no justification. The second is the that there’s no logic at all for the cut-off times.
"On both issues the industry has put forward practical, realistic and sensible proposals that balance economic and public health interests. We urge the Government to review its stance on alcohol and the arbitrary curfews it is imposing."
'No hope' for night-time economy
One serious area of concern remains the future of the night-time economy. Unlike England's roadmap, the First Minister would not offer a date for when the country would be able to remove all social contact restrictions and allow the night-time economy to reopen.
She said: "It is our fervent hope - and also our tentatively increasing expectation - that vaccination, continued use of the test and protect system, and probably a continued compliance with precautions like good hand hygiene, will allow us to keep Covid under much greater control.
"And that this will allow us to enjoy many of the things that we took for granted before the pandemic – for example, normal family gatherings where we can hug our loved ones, sporting events, gigs and nightclubs."
Montgomery says it's essential the Government focuses more business support on those businesses that still have no clarity on when they will be able to unlock.
"There’s no hope yet for drink-led pubs, nightclubs and others and it’s essential that the government focusses more business support on this disadvantaged groups.
"It must also help the whole sector to rebuild after a year of devastation by launching a campaign to rebuild public confidence in well-run and responsible venues, attracting customers back to hospitality. As we’ve repeatedly said, people will find a way to drink and to socialise, and the events of last year back us up on that, with the police having to break up many house parties.”
As Scotland moves out of lockdown, Sturgeon confirmed that financial aid would be tapered.
On 22 March recipients of support under the Strategic Business Framework Fund will receive a final four-week payment, with no new claims allowed after that date. Then, on 19 April, recipients will receive a combined final payment comprising a further two weeks closure support and a one-off restart grant.
For eligible hospitality and leisure businesses this will mean a payment on 19 April of up to £19,500.
“We also await further detail on the grants," adds Macleod. "They support must find its way quickly to businesses that need it most.”