FIRST minister Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to ease restrictions in the hospitality sector after paving the way for fans to return to football matches in large crowds.

Ms Sturgeon said the curbs on outdoor events which have placed a 500-capacity on outdoor sports events would be lifted from January 17. It means football clubs in Scotland’s top league can welcome full crowds when the season resumes after the winter break. The Premiership recommences when Celtic take on Hibs on Monday.

Under restrictions introduced to combat the surge in Omicron infections, nightclubs were close for a three-week period from December 27, while one-metre physical distancing was reintroduced to hospitality and leisure settings. Mandatory table service was also reinstated where alcohol is served for consumption on the premises.

The Federation of Small Businesses said the "next move" must be for restrictions to be lifted in the hospitality sector

Andrew McRae, policy chairman of FSB Scotland, said: “Local and independent businesses across Scotland will take comfort from the First Minister’s suggestion that Scotland may have turned a corner in our fight against the virus. The next move must be to ease the restrictions on hospitality firms like small cafés, restaurants, and pubs.

“Businesses will accept trade-offs as we return to more normal trading conditions. But Ministers should remember that Covid rules place a disproportionate burden on small operators, especially as they consider the role of vaccine passports.

“The lifting of the toughest covid rules doesn’t mean that Scotland’s small business community will return to full strength overnight. Indeed, the trade lost over Christmas and the debt accrued by firms over the length of the pandemic will mean tough business decisions for weeks and months to come.

“That’s why the Scottish Government must put local firms at the heart of their plans for recovery, recognising that Scotland lost 20,000 small businesses since this crisis began.”

Pubs group the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said there was "growing frustration" within the industry that there will be no firm decision on easing the current restrictions relating to table service and one-metre physical distancing until next week.

Managing director Colin Wilkinson said: “It is encouraging that some restrictions are being lifted from Monday but the constant messaging from the First Minister to work from home where possible and limit contact with people is doing nothing to build consumer confidence and leading to growing frustration among business owners.

“That the licensed hospitality sector has to wait until next week to find out if existing restrictions will be lifted from January 24 is unacceptable as it leaves business in limbo. Of course, we appreciate that the Scottish Government has to consider the health of the nation as well as the economy but more clarity is required."

One hospitality group declared that the Scottish Government "simply isn't doing enough to save hospitality" as it welcomed the change in policy mindset towards "living with the pandemic".

Surgeons Quarter, the commercial arm of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said it has lost more than £225,000 in cancellations and is continuing to lose business south of the Border.

Managing director Scott Mitchell said: "The great Christmas party and Hogmanay cancellation was catastrophic, but the First Minister had an opportunity today to spell out the point in time that firms could be encouraged to rebook. I look forward to seeing the Scottish Government leading by example and starting to place bookings for their deferred festive events.

"Instead, she is leaving the sector with support measures that are not fit for purpose and arbitrary restrictions that will result in countless lost jobs and livelihoods. The support we are receiving equates to roughly 3% of the sales we have lost, which are in excess of £225,000.

“It would be so helpful if we could have the same approach across the UK to have a level playing field, currently we are seeing events and hotel enquiries moving south of the border where the sector can operate without restrictions."

Night Time Industries Association Scotland said it was "disappointing" that the First Minister had not moved to lift restrictions sooner.

The organisation, which represents late-night operators and people in the industry's supply chain, said: "Whilst overall the ending of the current restrictions on the hospitality and late night economy sectors from 24th January is welcome, it is nevertheless disappointing that the First Minister has felt the need to extend the period of restrictions beyond the original date of January 17th, despite the emerging data showing a positive downward trend in hospitalisation and serious health outcomes.

"It is also very worrying that she has also suggested an extension of the vaccine passport scheme to additional settings. As recent data from the four nations has demonstrated, and as the National Clinical Director has already admitted, additional restrictions in Scotland have had little impact on case rates but have had a serious impact on Scottish businesses and jobs."

The group also flagged concerns over the distribution of emergency support funding, stating that of the cash backing announced the "majority has gone to sectors other than hospitality".

It said: "The funding already committed by Scottish Government to enable businesses to retain and pay staff wages over the festive period must now be expedited at speed as the ability of employers to fund payroll from their existing cashflow is seriously at risk, along with the jobs supported by these businesses.

"Furthermore, we call on Scottish Government to now urgently release all remaining unallocated funding to compensate Scottish nightlife and hospitality businesses for the disproportionate restrictions currently in place, and commit to a full reopening without any further restrictions.”

Mr Wilkson said pub operators were concerned about the possible extension of the vaccine passport scheme to their sector, saying such a move would have a "negative impact on businesses".

He said: "Many sports fans will want to watch football and the forthcoming Six Nations tournament in the pub. If our pubs, bars and restaurants are still required to have social distancing and table/seated service for some time yet, this will obviously affect the capacity numbers for these premises and spoil the atmosphere usually associated with major sporting events being enjoyed in licensed premises.”