IN a ritual that has become a hallmark of the coronavirus pandemic, Scots gathered around laptops, televisions and radios on Tuesday to eagerly await signs of an end to the misery of lockdown.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did offer a glimpse into an existence freer from restrictions as she unveiled Scotland’s strategic framework for exiting lockdown to MSPs at Holyrood, but for the hospitality and tourism trade, it simply did not go far enough.

While the First Minister’s cautious instinct is absolutely understandable given the profound human suffering that continues to be caused by the pandemic, it is not difficult to have sympathy with those who earn their living from the industry. Especially when you consider the many long months that pubs, hotels, restaurants and accommodation providers have been forced to keep their doors closed, with an end to the deep freeze still out of reach.

On the one hand, the absence of a more definitive reopening schedule in Scotland was not unexpected. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson never seems able to resist playing the boosterism card – the UK Government’s roadmap sets out in detail when it hopes certain activities can recommence, despite previous claims that it would be guided by data, not dates – Ms Sturgeon was always likely to be more circumspect. The net effect, however, is that whereas hospitality and tourism in England is looking forward to an initial reopening date of April 12, the wait will go on longer in Scotland.

Under the Scottish framework, it is proposed that the country moves down from level four – essentially full lockdown conditions – into level three on April 26, though Ms Sturgeon did signal yesterday that some areas could move straight to level two if infection rates allow.

A move to level three would allow tourism accommodation providers and indeed hospitality outlets to reopen, which of course does bring the prospect of being able to trade once again.

But level three also brings continuing restrictions, and as yet there is no guarantee of how long areas will remain in that grade of lockdown. In level three, bars, restaurants and cafes must close by six o’clock and are unable to sell alcohol, and people are still not permitted to travel beyond the boundaries of their local authority areas. It is not exactly helpful to businesses that depend on the patronage of visitors who travel from other parts of the country and indeed from overseas to their destinations.

In fact, the tourism sector in Scotland has already had to disappoint prospective visitors. Businesses had seen an upsurge in bookings after Mr Johnson’s roadmap was published on Monday, as people reacted to the prospect of getting away after months of grinding lockdown. However, those have had to be postponed or cancelled in light of the divergence between Scotland and England with regard to reopening.

The frustration many feel in the tourism industry was captured by Caroline Millar, sector lead at Scottish Agritourism and co-owner of The Hideaway Experience near Dundee in an exclusive interview in The Herald yesterday. Ms Millar said many people struggle to understand why the position is different in Scotland.

“They just see semi-good news and go ahead and book,” she said, referring to tourists who had booked breaks in Scotland following the publication of Mr Johnson’s roadmap on Monday. “It involved a lot of explaining to them that they can’t come, and cancelling, if it is in that medium term. But also, I think this doesn’t make our consumers want to book. Our business is sitting fully booked at the moment, almost right through to the summer. It just means we are going to have to cancel and refund all of April, and nearly all of May as well.”

That bookings have had to be refunded or postponed is obviously a blow to businesses that continue to be without regular income. Several months have now elapsed since Scotland first moved into its levels-based lockdown system in early November, which has since been followed by near-total lockdown since Boxing Day. Against that backdrop, the prospect of at least two further months of closure or heavily restricted trading conditions, all while regular bills still have to be paid, is a difficult one to swallow. This is especially the case when progress is being made in driving down infection rates and with the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

Grants and the prospect of tapered support as Scotland moves through the lockdown levels have been welcomed by the industry, but this will only cover a fraction of the overheads businesses must pay to keep the lights on.

Calls from the industry have now been made for the Scottish Government to align itself with England. More than 80 businesses from across the sector in Scotland have come together to propose a UK-wide, full reopening of tourism and hospitality on May 17, amid claims the Scottish roadmap “has been met with utter dismay, confusion and anger”.

The Hospitality & Tourism Action Group, which counts renowned Edinburgh hotelier and restaurateur James Thomson among its membership, says that without clarity on full reopening the ability of the sector to recover will be compromised, putting jobs, outlets and their suppliers at risk. It also argues the current levels of grant support are inadequate. “The wider impact of these restrictions on communities in Scotland is devastating,” Mr Thomson said.

The level of worry and frustration in the industry is palpable, and it is easy to understand why. There is no escaping the risk of mass company failures and redundancies, and the mental strain on business owners and employees should not be underestimated.

It would be wrong to suggest the Scottish Government is oblivious to these pressures, though. Indeed, it could be argued that it has shown support for the industry within the parameters available to it, and has been pressing the UK Government to unlock the funding required to ensure the relief for business rates would continue for another year. It also continues to lobby for the extension of the furlough scheme beyond the end of April. As has been the case all the way through this crisis, ministers must strive to find a balance between protecting lives and the economy, and that tension will persist for as long as coronavirus is a major, threatening presence in our lives.

There are undoubtedly some difficult weeks to come, not just for the hospitality and tourism sector but for society as whole. However, thanks to vaccines, an end to the nightmare is now within our reach. In these circumstances, it is up to government, on both sides of the Border, to do all it can to ensure as many jobs and businesses survive this crisis as possible.