Coronavirus restrictions extended but Nicola Sturgeon voices ‘cautious optimism’

Tough restrictions on Scotland’s hospitality sector may be having an impact in the fight against coronavirus, Nicola Sturgeon said as she extended the measures for a further week.

The First Minister said there are “grounds for cautious optimism” as a result of the temporary closure of pubs and restaurants across central Scotland.

But industry body the Scottish Hospitality Group warned the extension of restrictions could see countless venues forced to close for good, potentially leaving tens of thousands of people out of work.

At her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon announced there had been 1,739 positive tests reported in the past 24 hours and 28 deaths – the highest daily number of fatalities for five months.

But she said: “Even allowing for today’s figures, we think that we might be starting to see a reduction in the rate at which new cases are increasing.”

The temporary restrictions, which also limit the operation of hospitality businesses outside the central belt, had originally been described by the First Minister as “short, sharp” action to curb the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

They were introduced on October 9 and were due to be lifted on October 26, but they will now be in place until November 2 when a new five-tiered system of restrictions is imposed.

Ms Sturgeon said: “We think there are grounds for cautious optimism, that these restrictions, coupled with the earlier restrictions on household gatherings, are having an effect in at least slowing the increase in cases.

“But the clinical advice… is that it would be premature to lift them on Monday and perhaps if we lifted them too early would undo the progress that is being made.”

The Scottish Government has provided £40 million of support to affected businesses over the original 16-day closure period, and Ms Sturgeon said this will be extended on a “proportionate” basis.

But Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said the extension of restrictions is “an indication that we can only expect a continued Government stranglehold on hospitality that will have devastating consequences”.

He said: “With current restrictions remaining in place until November 2, and no indication of what the new tier system will entail, the financial support package must be increased or countless venues will be forced to close for good, and tens of thousands of people will lose their jobs.”

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses in the hospitality sector and across the supply chain will be absolutely devastated that restrictions now look to be in place indefinitely.

“We were advised that temporary restrictions would help to reduce spread of the virus. But now the temporary restrictions have been extended, which make it impossible for businesses to rebuild and protect jobs.”

As Ms Sturgeon pledged increased financial support, she warned the Scottish Government is at the limit of what help it can provide within its “finite budget” and she urged the UK Treasury to do more.

She said: “I sympathise with businesses who say they need much more support but I have to be frank, within our current resources we cannot do that.

“We are making the case to the Treasury that there has to be much better funding flowing from them to devolved administrations, to councils in England. Generally more money flowing to support businesses and individuals affected by restrictions.”

She added that keeping the restrictions in place for a further week should allow for a “smooth transition from temporary restrictions into the new system”.

In England, areas are classed as being at “medium”, “high” or “very high” risk of coronavirus in a three-tiered system, and Ms Sturgeon said the three middle tiers in her proposed new system will be broadly similar to this.

She added there will be a lower tier in Scotland for areas with the fewest cases, while a fifth tier at the top will be “closer to a full lockdown if things got to be that serious”.

But she stressed the Government’s “default position is we want to keep schools open, regardless of what tier we are at”.

While she said “some kind of move to blended learning cannot ever be absolutely ruled out”, she said the objective is to keep schools open “if we possibly can”.