Scotland's largest pub operator has warned that only half its premises will be able to reopen on Monday thanks to Nicola Sturgeon's "nonsensical" restrictions on hospitality.
Star Pubs & Bars, which is owned by brewing giant Heineken, said 50 per cent of its 230 businesses across the country will remain shuttered as they cannot operate with the SNP government's curfews and ban on indoor drinking.
While beer gardens across Scotland will be able to serve alcohol outdoors until 10pm from Monday, the ban on indoor drinking is not set to be lifted until at least May 17 and customers enjoying a meal inside must leave by 8pm.
Warning that Scotland’s pubs are in a “fragile state”, managing director Lawson Mountstevens said that although the group is “delighted” at being able to reopen, the ongoing restrictions are “onerous”.
He added: “The Scottish Government urgently needs to provide additional financial assistance or scrap the nonsensical curfews and restrictions on drinking alcohol indoors that will hamper the recovery of Scotland’s pubs.”
Meanwhile, a pub owner who has benefited from drastic rent reductions from the group warned that those not attached to a rich brewer will be "sitting on a mountain of debt".
Neil Douglas of Basils, an Edinburgh bar in the Star pub chain, said: "The 90 per cent rent cuts we’ve had from Star have kept Basils afloat. By comparison, I’ve received no decrease in rent at one of my privately leased restaurants and only 25 per cent on the other. My heart goes out to licensees who haven’t had rent reductions."
Mr Douglas added that pubs “desperately need certainty” and “as much notice as possible” that they can trade more normally from May 17.
It comes after Dr Gregor Smith, the country’s chief medical officer, warned that social distancing restrictions on both indoor and outdoor hospitality are “a good way off” being lifted, despite daily Covid deaths in Scotland in low single figures.
He insisted the one-metre rule, which will even apply between people from different households enjoying a meal together, was "proportionate" and it would not change before more information is available about the impact of vaccination on transmission.
Businesses have been told they would need a table at least a metre wide and three-and-a-half metres long to accommodate a group of six, with the distancing rules applying to both indoor and outdoor areas.
Scotland's crisis-hit hospitality industries warned their businesses could not even start to recover while the "toxic" rule remains and "every extra day of social distancing will result in more business failures, more job losses, and more small business owners losing what has often taken a lifetime to build."
The Scottish Government’s position stands in stark contrast to England, where Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick wrote to local authorities cautioning them against “overzealous interpretation” of distancing rules at tables outdoors.
And although Boris Johnson has given the indicative date of June 21 for all legal restrictions on social mixing to end, the night-time industry has warned that Nicola Sturgeon’s refusal to provide similar clarity to Scots has put thousands of jobs in jeopardy.
The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) warned of an impending unemployment tsunami, with up to 24,000 jobs thought to be at risk within weeks, as a majority of struggling businesses in the industry have now run out of cash to pay furlough contributions and fixed costs.
Opposition parties have accused SNP ministers of repeatedly “failing to engage” with the beleaguered sector and treating businesses as an “afterthought”.
“Throughout this crisis, the SNP have treated concerns from businesses as an afterthought and failed to engage properly with them,” said Scottish Conservative economy spokesman Maurice Golden.
“While we need to remain cautious, all the public health data shows that we could ease restrictions quicker for our hospitality businesses.”
He repeated the Scottish Tories’ call for businesses to be allowed to serve alcohol with a meal from Monday rather than “delaying until the middle of May”.
Meanwhile, Scots Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie warned that some venues may never reopen unless the Scottish Government “acts soon”.
"The hospitality sector finds itself in quite a bind. Even though restrictions are gradually being eased, many venues are still not able to operate in a manner that will allow them to keep their heads above water,” he said, adding that “we must not face a fresh wave of unemployment just as the public health crisis recedes”.
Claiming that the hospitality industry has taken the “brunt” of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Scottish Labour finance spokesperson Daniel Johnson said the SNP has “refused to engage” with the sector despite it being “no surprise” that most pubs would be unable to reopen under their rules.
An SNP spokesperson said the party "fully appreciates the difficulties the pandemic has brought on the hospitality sector".
They added: "We have all longed for the day that some sort of normality returns to our lives, therefore it is a hugely positive step that the hospitality sector can reopen indoors and outdoors come Monday - the first country in the UK to permit indoor hospitality.
"However, it is well established that Covid transmits easier when people are in close proximity to each other which is why we must remain cautious."