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Scotland's crisis-hit tourism and hospitality firms have been left in "limbo" and unable to take bookings thanks to Nicola Sturgeon's failure to provide a detailed lockdown exit plan, furious industry leaders have said.
The Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) said Boris Johnson's blueprint had led to a "huge spike in bookings from England for foreign travel" in the summer but Scottish hoteliers and accommodation providers cannot compete as they do not know if they will be open.
This was echoed by the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC), which said the First Minister had "completely failed" to provide clarity and firms were having to turn down bookings from south of the Border while their English competitors were inundated with queries.
Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), said a late spring reopening would “sadly be too late for many and for those who do survive there remain serious challenges ahead”.
Both he and the STA said Ms Sturgeon's decision to return to regional tiers at the end of April, rather than ease restrictions uniformly across the country, caused a massive headache for their industries as firms could not predict what level of restrictions would apply in their areas.
Everywhere will initially move to Level 3, which under the old system meant licensed premises shutting at 6pm and not serving alcohol. Mr Waterson said "that such restrictive reopening conditions are simply not worth the time, effort and money involved."
In a statement, the Scottish Wedding Industry Alliance said: "Today's announcement has done nothing to create hope that the biggest day in couples lives can go ahead as planned. "It has caused confusion, doubt and stress. For an industry which is already losing £6.5 million a day, the lack of clarity today will cost livelihoods, businesses will collapse and couples will postpone and cancel weddings, which support up to 40,000 jobs in Scotland."
“With no international tourism likely for some time, there is greater dependency on Scotland’s ability to attract tourism from within the UK...
Our industry is not able to accept bookings with confidence...” @MCrothall
— ST Alliance (@st_alliance) February 23, 2021
Other business leaders gave a guarded welcome to Ms Sturgeon's blueprint but said it should have provided more detail and gone further than the end of April.
Tracy Black, the CBI Scotland director, said: "While the strategic framework update does represent a small step in the right direction, many Scottish businesses will be left feeling deflated. Considerable uncertainty still remains over how and when they can reopen their doors."
While Boris Johnson provided a complete plan for unlocking the economy, Ms Sturgeon argued she could not go beyond the end of April as the lack of certainty about the pandemic meant this was "was akin to providing "false assurance or picking arbitrary dates."
Another major difference was the Prime Minister's blueprint for unlocking England applied to all areas simultaneously, while Ms Sturgeon plans to revert to regional levels of restrictions on April 26.
Her document said: "We are conscious that, even within the easings afforded by the Levels process, some important sectors of the economy will be constrained from operating anything close to normally for a considerable period ahead."
In another major blow for businesses, the document said the increased transmissibility of the new Covid variant meant the criteria for moving down a tier would be toughened up. "This means that areas will stay at higher levels until case numbers have fallen further than would have been the case under the approach we took between October and December, when the new variant emerged," it said.
— Scottish Hospitality Group #Hospitality (@ScottishGroup) February 23, 2021
Marc Crothall, the STA's chief executive, welcomed the provisional timetable provided but said tourism firms but said "the detail announced today does not go far enough in giving our sector the clarity needed at this point to plan for reopening."
He said: "Our tourism industry is not able to accept bookings with confidence; not all will wait for our sector to gradually re-open to book.
"We’ve seen the huge spike in bookings from England for foreign travel over the last 24 hours and there is a great fear that Scotland’s tourism industry will lose out in what could have been a buoyant summer season."
Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the ASSC, said: "What makes this muddle even more disappointing to us, and to Scotland’s tourism sector as a whole, is that it effectively means we are lagging behind our colleagues south of the border who already have an indicative date to reopen and as a result have already seen bookings come pouring in for late spring.
“We are now not only having to cancel and refund existing bookings, but we are also having to turn down bookings from South of the border."
Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, complained his industry was in "limbo", saying: "It’s extremely frustrating for operators in Scotland to be looking at their counterparts in England who are finally able to start preparing for a return to normality with greater certainty."
What does today's update to the Covid-19 Strategic Framework mean for business and reopening the economy? Director @TracyBlackCBI thinks that the uncertainty continues for many firms: https://t.co/8t3C84tdD4
— CBI Scotland (@CBI_Scotland) February 23, 2021
Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, also called for more detail, saying: "It is important that Scotland remains as closely in step with the four nations as is possible.
"A competitive disadvantage to business communities elsewhere in the UK will only add insult to the injury already caused by the pandemic."
Business groups have repeatedly complained about the slow pace of the Scottish Government's business support, but Ms Sturgeon pledged one of the key funds would continue until at least the end of June.
The First Minister said that firms would also continue to receive payments for at least four weeks after their council area moves out of the highest Level 4 of lockdown "as they transition back to trading more normally."
"We are also considering some form of tapered support for businesses that may still face trading restrictions and reduced demand, even as they are allowed to reopen," she added.