Nicola Sturgeon has provoked a furious backlash from Scottish businesses after she branded UK Government proposals for air bridges “shambolic” and threatened to draw up her own plans instead.
The country’s major airports said diverging from a UK-wide policy on quarantine rules risked inflicting long-term harm to the economy by deterring tourists and causing widespread job losses. They claimed the plan would offer little benefit to public health as any separate rules north of the border would prove unenforceable.
The First Minister was also warned that her stance was confusing residents planning an overseas summer holiday, who she urged to consider a ‘staycation’ in Scotland rather than going abroad.
Ms Sturgeon insisted that she would not be “dragged along” by UK Government "travel corridor" plans, saying that proposals shared with Scottish ministers had repeatedly changed over recent days. She said this meant it would be irresponsible to rubber stamp the final list without further scrutiny.
Her claim was backed up by the Welsh First Minister, who also said it had been "impossible" to get a "straight answer" out of UK ministers about the policy. However, Wales is expected to adopt the same rules as England in the coming days.
The UK Government released a list of 59 countries and 14 British overseas territories which people in England can travel to from July 10 without the need to quarantine when they return. They include popular holiday destinations such as Italy and Greece.
Ms Sturgeon said that while she was content to endorse countries categorised as “green”, meaning they had very low levels of coronavirus, she had concerns about some of those classed as “amber”, with which the UK has agreed “reciprocal arrangements” for travellers not to quarantine.
She said she may seek to maintain restrictions on people who had been to some of the “amber” countries, which include France and Spain, although she refused to specify which nations she had particular concerns over.
Ms Sturgeon said different rules would apply even if someone flies into an airport in northern England and then travels to Scotland by road or rail, but it remains unclear how these people could be identified.
Ms Sturgeon said the system would be applied in the same way as to those who are required to quarantine currently after international travel. However, no fines have yet been issued by Police Scotland for those breaking existing rules.
Gordon Dewar, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, said any decision to diverge from the rest of the UK would do “immediate and long term economic damage”.
He added: “Scottish jobs are being sacrificed on a system that is unintelligible, unenforceable and that does not deliver the health benefits we all want.
“With this decision we are in the very real situation that Scotland will get the worst of all worlds – a damaged economy and a policy which is very likely to be unworkable in practice and therefore has no practical health impact.”
The First Minister said she was still keen to come to an agreement with the UK Government if possible.
But Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, described the breakdown of a four nations approach to easing rules as “hugely disappointing and damaging”.
As some holiday accommodation reopened in Scotland on Friday, Dr Cameron warned that Ms Sturgeon was at risk of sending a message that Scotland was “not yet open for business” and said "politics must be put to one side".
“Complex policy variations and piecemeal measures simply confuse Scottish businesses, its global trading partners and the people of Scotland more widely,” she said.
“We urge the Scottish Government to commit to align with a UK-wide approach. In the light of current and expected job losses, we need the Scottish Government to make their decision as a matter of urgency hopefully not creating further divergence.”
Meanwhile, the operator of Aberdeen and Glasgow Airports said anything other than a consistent UK-wide approach would put jobs and livelihoods at risk.
“Adopting a different approach is going to do further damage to our aviation sector which has already been buffeted by widespread job losses, and it will have wider, long term implications on the ability of our economy to recover,” Derek Provan, AGS Airports chief executive, said.
“This isn’t just about people being able to go on a summer holiday, it’s about safely re-establishing the routes that drive trade and investment.”
Ms Sturgeon said she was determined to protect Scotland from a further spike in Covid-19 cases, with infection rates having fallen at a faster rate than in England over recent weeks.
As more progress was made against the virus, she said, protecting against imported cases became more important.
Ms Sturgeon has also refused to rule out imposing quarantine measures in future on people travelling from England, provoking further controversy. While border policy is reserved to Westminster, devolved governments can impose quarantine rules on public health grounds.
“When so much is at stake, as it is right now, we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged along in the wake of another government’s, to be quite frank about it, shambolic decision making process,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“We assess that the prevalence of the virus in Scotland right now is five times lower than it is in England. That means there may well be cases where the UK government is admitting visitors to England without quarantine from countries that don’t present a significant risk of raising infection levels there, but would be a risk in Scotland.”
However, UK Government sources accused Ms Sturgeon of “playing politics” with the issue and seeking to manufacture a row with London.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson rejected the claim that the policy was shambolic.
“I know that administrations in Wales and Scotland may have their own take on this,” he said. “But my impression of the way we have been working as a UK is that, generally speaking, we are following very, very similar paths if at slightly different speeds.”