NO ONE envies the Scottish Government’s task in tackling the worst public health crisis for a century, particularly when the methods are the most severe restrictions on personal liberty in peacetime, and the results the greatest economic damage and challenges in as long.

General acceptance of this state of affairs, and compliance and even approval of Nicola Sturgeon’s approach, has been dependent on acknowledging the reality and scale of the problem, and accepting that scientific evidence and advice justifies the means adopted.

In presentational terms, the Scottish Government has handled this better than Westminster, though the measures adopted have, until now, been more or less the same. The Scottish public has been forgiving even of what are now seen as obvious blunders, and readier to credit ministers’ good intentions.

But the corollary of policies that justify damage knowingly done on the basis of clear purpose, supporting evidence and sincerity of intent is that government must explain that purpose, produce the evidence, and show that it necessitates the measures. In the latest restrictions imposed on the hospitality sector – even leaving aside their shambolic imposition – little of that is apparent.

It was never claimed, even at the first outbreak, that lockdown would halt the disease; nothing will do that unless and until there is a vaccine or some spontaneous withering of the virus. Business closures and personal shielding were intended to protect the vulnerable and delay transmission in order to buy preparation time for frontline services. The NHS has been given unprecedented leeway and resources; the lessons for care homes have (at terrible cost) been learnt, or so we must fervently hope.

If, when restrictions were eased, a rise in cases was inevitable, but should have been manageable, the focus should be on hospitalisations, and the robustness of public services in dealing with them. Reimposing lockdowns – local or “circuit-breaking” – ought to require evidence that they prevent deaths and chaos in services; there is none that they stop, rather than merely delay, infection.

The idea that hospitality venues are uniquely risky is flimsy, especially when set against schools, universities, shops, places of worship, exercise and entertainment and, above all, private homes. Local pub closures in Bolton and Leicester had no impact on infection rates, nor has the 10pm curfew on on-license sales.

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer says that 20-25 per cent of newly infected patients have visited licensed premises, but admits there is no evidence that was the cause or even the location of the infections; NHS England’s track and trace data suggests just five per cent of new infections occurred in any leisure or community setting (of which licensed premises are a small subset), with households easily the largest transmission points.

The notion that a licensed café (even if such a thing existed in law) becomes safe if it doesn’t sell alcohol, but it is essential for pubs and restaurants to close entirely for more than a fortnight is frankly bizarre.

It is extraordinary, too, that such measures should have been proposed without any significant consultation with business, unions, chambers of commerce or the public. These firms and their staff have been among the worst hammered by the crisis, but after adapting and complying (often at great cost) with new restraints, they are shut down again with little notice, and huge confusion about the rules. Yet 85 per cent of such premises meet or exceed the existing rules, and are obviously easier to supervise; breaches can be identified and, more important, new cases more easily traced.

Evidence for this as a short-term measure is inadequate. It is obviously no long-term solution if the sector is to exist at all. We recognise the difficulty of such decisions and can only hope they work, but they have been dismally handled, poorly explained, and not yet vindicated by argument or data. These businesses, their staff and their customers deserve better.