Scotland’s nationwide crackdown on indoor drinking descended into chaos on Thursday evening, less than 24 hours before strict new regulations on hospitality are due to come into force.
Many business owners in central Scotland, where a 16-day shutdown of pubs, restaurants and cafes that serve alcohol was announced by Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday, claimed that they were still uncertain whether they were expected to close at 6pm on Friday as trade bodies described the Scottish government’s behaviour as “dysfunctional”.
In her statement to MSPs, the first minister said that the temporary shutdown would include all licensed premises, although cafes without an alcohol licence could stay open until 6pm “to support social isolation”.
But at lunchtime on Thursday, during first minister’s questions, Sturgeon brought in an exemption for licensed cafes, stating that they could likewise stay open provided they did not sell alcohol.
As businesses absorbed the news, many began to question precisely how a cafe is defined, as desperate owners asked whether they might be able to stay open after all.
Then on Thursday evening, Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, compounded the confusion when he was asked to clarify the situation during an interview with BBC Radio Scotland. Leitch said it would be left to the environmental health officers of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to define and enforce the regulations.
This appeared to contradict Sturgeon’s earlier statement, when she insisted that a “specific exemption” for cafes would be set out in regulations to be published on Friday.
With businesses still waiting for clarification from the guidelines, hospitality bodies said that many establishments were still uncertain whether or not they would be expected to close.
Describing the unfolding chaos as “dysfunctional”, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, James Withers, said that the problem could have been foreseen had the Scottish government consulted with businesses in advance. “Had we been approached even on Monday we could have worked through this in time for a Wednesday announcement,” he said, adding that it was “also madness” that licensed restaurants cannot remain open but not serve alcohol.
The Scottish Licensed Trade Association stated plainly that “there is no such thing as a licensed cafe” and therefore no definition in law of a cafe versus a restaurant, while leading licensing lawyer Stephen McGowan, of the law firm TLT, called on the Scottish government to offer clarity. “If parliament does not define cafe and it is left to local interpretation as is suggested here, then expect absolute carnage across the country. You’ll have one premises shut and the one next door open over the subjective view of a council officer? What a position to be in.”
Earlier on Thursday, businesses vented their anger and despair at the “catastrophic” and “scapegoating” new regulations and highlighted the lack of industry consultation, while local residents on online forums decried the “prohibition” that would result from harsher restrictions in central Scotland.