BUSINESSES are calling for Nicola Sturgeon to bin her geographical levels system amid concern ministers will “move the goalposts” and roll out even stricter criteria for parts of Scotland to move down the tiered system.

The Scottish Government is set to copy the more stringent levels parameters drawn up by World Health Organization (WHO), insisting tighter rules are needed to respond to the more transmissible strain of the virus – now responsible for around 85 per cent of cases in Scotland.

Under the WHO rules, the former case rate threshold last year for level 3 of 150 to 300 per 100,000 will be cut to 50 – 150 per 100,000 – meaning 19 of Scotland’s local authorities would be placed in tier 3 as of February 25.

The parameters for level 2 were previously for between 75 and 150 cases per 100,000 – but that would be cut to between 20 and 75 under the WHO guidance. Under those metrics, only Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Highlands, Moray, the Western Isles and the Scottish Borders have an adequately low case rate, according to data as of February 25.

For local authorities to be put into level 1, the previously boundary of case rates between 20 and 75 will be lowered to under 20. Only Argyll and Bute currently meet this parameter.

HeraldScotland: The revised tougher levels parameters (Picture: Scottish Government)The revised tougher levels parameters (Picture: Scottish Government)

As things stand, according to the WHO metrics, Falkirk, West Dunbartonshire and Stirling council areas would remain in level 4.

Under the previous levels system, pubs and restaurants could only open until 6pm in level 3 and were banned from serving alcohol – and could only do so once they reached level 2.

Yesterday, the First Minister said she hoped the lockdown exit could be “accelerated” when she sets out plans to Holyrood next week as the vaccination progress and case numbers continue to decline.

She also revealed plans for all school pupils to return to classrooms full time after the Easter holidays, while all P4 to P7 pupils are expected back in from March 15, when secondary students could return on a part-time basis.

But businesses face more anxiety and being stuck “in limbo” amid calls for the levels system to be ditched in favour of a Scotland-wide exit plan.

Paul Waterson, from the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), has warned against a return of the Scottish Government’s level systems.

HeraldScotland: Paul WatersonPaul Waterson

He said: “If we are in tier 3 or tier 2, it’s really not worth opening because of the restrictions in the last tier system. When we are talking about opening up, it’s just not viable in tier 3 or tier 2.

“There’s quite a large majority believing that we should open together as a country and we should open without restrictions in terms of the tiers – obviously we will still need social distancing for a while.

“The regional or local idea just doesn’t work for us.”

He added: “I can understand the islands being in a different set of restrictions, but the tier system is inconsistent and it’s a bit of a postcode lottery. It should be a one size fits all approach.

“We need clarity on what those tiers will be – we're in limbo at the moment.

“If we are going into tiers and those tiers are going to be more difficult to get out of, it’s not going to do us any good. There’s also a worry that people will travel from one area to another.”

READ MORE: Schools reopen: Nicola Sturgeon accused of being driven by dates not data

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, has warned politicians that “many businesses and jobs are on the brink of being lost”.

She added: “We would urge great caution in any attempt to be introducing even stricter controls on areas of Scotland being allowed to open and trade.

“Businesses, their employees and their families now need to be reassured that they can plan for opening in work environments that they have already made safe and secure.”

The Scottish Government’s revised framework for exiting the lockdown makes clear that “at least all of the JCVI groups 1-9 must have been offered a vaccination prior to the return to geographically varied levels” – which would mean all adults aged 50 and older will have received the jag first.

The document says the WHO guidance “indicates that we should lower or tighten some of the thresholds associated with each of our five levels”.

It adds: “This will have the effect of keeping some areas in higher levels than they would previously have been for the same level of incidence, which we see as a necessary response to increased transmission of the new variant.

“While we will continue to give careful consideration to WHO advice as it continues to develop, we will seek to tailor such advice to Scotland’s particular circumstances where appropriate.”

Officials have also admitted that at the start of December, the levels system “became less effective in suppressing the virus”, largely down to the new variant of Covid-19.

The framework adds: “The protection levels were designed at a time when the variants in Scotland were much less transmissible: the new variant therefore reduced the protective effect of the levels and the situation deteriorated.”

But yesterday, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that her Cabinet “will be considering if it might be possible to accelerate the exit from lockdown in any way”.

When the First Minister set out her exit plan last month, she indicated that the national stay at home lockdown is likely to remain in place until at least April 5, while tiered geographical restrictions were expected to be set out from the last week in April.

READ MORE: Sturgeon says Scotland's lockdown exit could be 'accelerated'

Speaking in Holyrood yesteday, she added: “There is more reason to be optimistic now than at any time since early autumn. That said, we know we need to take care to avoid sending progress into reverse.

"657 new cases a day is the lowest level for five months – but it is still 13 times higher than the numbers in mid-August.”

Ms Sturgeon said that 1,634,361 people in Scotland have now received the first dose of the vaccine, which she suggested is starting to have an impact on the number of daily deaths, particularly in care homes.

The First Minister added that "just under 14,500" care home residents have received their second dose of the vaccine.

She added that the continued rollout of the vaccine should “start having an impact on hospitalisation and transmission rates”.

The First Minister added that she did not want to give people “false hope”, but added that there's "every reason now that the exit from lockdown might be quicker and come sooner than we believed to be the case even a few weeks ago".

But Ms Sturgeon warned that while a “reduction in hospital admissions is very encouraging”, it is still the situation that “hundreds of people every week are still falling seriously ill”.

She added: “We know that the new variant - which now accounts for more than 85 per cent of new cases in Scotland - is highly infectious."

Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, Donald Cameron, has insisted that businesses want the Scottish Government want “clarity on when they will be able to see their loved ones and when they will be able to re-open their doors”.

READ MORE: Brazil variant: Travellers on Aberdeen flight urged to call contact tracers

He added: “They will be dismayed that the SNP look set to move the goalposts yet again, in contrast to what happened when restrictions were previously eased last year.

“While it is imperative that restrictions are lifted in line with public health advice, SNP ministers should be transparent about how these decisions will be reached.

“With the vaccination programme continuing apace, SNP ministers must consider whether restrictions can be lifted when certain vaccine targets are hit. That could allow areas further ahead with the vaccine rollout to potentially ease restrictions more quickly.

“That will give people hope and will allow businesses to adapt rather than potentially creating yet further confusion as we look to exit from lockdown.”