Nicola Sturgeon has been warned key sectors of the Scottish economy face “wholesale collapse” unless Covid physical distancing restrictions are relaxed, as new figures showed unemployment racing ahead of the other UK nations.

Business leaders said dropping the two-metre distancing rule to one metre was now “essential” if the hospitality and tourism trade was to survive the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The Scottish pub trade warned more than 20,000 jobs were at risk, with almost nine in 10 landlords saying the drastic limit on customers would make their premises financially unviable.

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Academics from Dundee and Oxford also cast doubt on the two-metre rule, saying there was little hard evidence to support it, or show it was significantly safer than one metre.

However the First Minister again resisted calls to change the rule when Scotland moves into the second phase of her four-stage lockdown exit later this week.

“Difficult though all of this is, we must guard against a reckless relaxation of lockdown measures,” she said at the daily briefing.

“If we ease measures too quickly and allow the virus to run out of control again, that would be economically counterproductive but would also cost more lives.

“The progress we have made is an essential foundation for the sustainable economic recovery we want – the more we can suppress this virus now, the more normality we can restore as we do open up the economy and society.”

New Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showed Scotland had the highest unemployment rate of the four UK nations, at 4.6 per cent over the period from February to April, up from 3.5% the previous quarter.

Unemployment north of the Border surged by almost one-third, from 95,000 to 127,000 between quarters, as the lockdown froze large parts of the economy.

The UK jobless rate was flat at 3.9%, but numbers on UK payrolls fell by 612,000, or 2.1% between March and May, and the number of people claiming work-related benefits jumped 126% to 2.8 million.

The claimant count in Scotland has risen by more than 90% since March to 217,600. There was also a record fall in job vacancies across the UK to 476,000, down 342,000 on the previous quarter.

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said the jobless figures “only hint at the scale of thechallenge that lies ahead”.

She said hospitality and tourism would hardest hit, disproportionately affecting the young and low paid. She said: “It is clear that the relaxation of the two metre distance to one metre will be essential to prevent wholesale economic collapse of these sectors and support business recovery.’’

The First Minister is expected to announce the reopening of beer gardens and outdoor restaurants on Thursday, with indoor premises set to follow three weeks later.

But the Scottish Beer & Pub Association (SPBA) said the sector would be “decimated” if bars had to exclude most of their customers.

Citing a landlord survey which covered 300 pubs across Scotland, the SBPA said the trade could see the loss of 23,600 jobs.

SBPA chief executive Emma McClarkin urged the Scottish Government to switch from 2m to the 1m social distance backed by the World Health Organisation.

Keeping a 2m rule in place simply does not make financial sense and the fallout will see the loss of thousands of jobs affecting both the Scottish economy and local communities.”

The case for a change to 1m distancing was boosted by new academic research.

Dr Mike Lonergan, a senior statistician and epidemiologist at Dundee University’s medical school, said a review of the research that led to the 2m rule suggested it was flawed.

He said previous studies estimated the risk of catching Covid-19 relative to touching an infected person, rather than comparing various distances.

He said the key lesson was to avoid contact, but keeping a 1m distance added little to that, and there was “no indication that 2m is better than 1m or just avoiding contact”.

Professors Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, of Oxford University, also called for an end to the “formalised rules”, saying the evidence on which the policy is based was “poor”.

Boris Johnson, who is under intense pressure from Tory MPs to move to a 1m rule, last night said there would be a “strong case” for reviewing it once the number of infectious people fell further, but said it remained in place for now to help suppress the virus.

Another five Scots died overnight of Covid, taking the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases to 2,448.

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Ms Sturgeon urged the UK Treasury to continue the furlough scheme beyond its current end date of October to help with the “economic crisis”. With all shops now allowed to open in England, she said she indicate on Thursday when non-essential shops could reopen their doors in Scotland.

However she warned “not all major changes will happen overnight” in Phase 2, which could include people meeting in larger groups outdoors and with another household indoors.

Andrew McRae, of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said the jobs numbers should “set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power” as they showed unemployment rising despite the furloughing scheme.

Tory MSP Maurice Golden said: “The Scottish Government needs to act to mitigate these as quickly as possible. “An economic crisis of this scale could be every bit as devastating as the health emergency we’ve experienced.”

Dr Stuart McIntyre, of the Fraser of Allander Institute, said the ONS figures excluded almost 800,000 furloughed Scottish staff and the supported selfemployed, who were counted as being in employment, meaning “substantial increases” were yet to come.