BUSINESS leaders have welcomed Nicola Sturgeon’s confirmation that Covid lockdown restrictions will ease significantly from Monday.

The First Minister said only Moray, where the virus is four times as prevalent as the national average, was likely to remain in Level 3.

However the rest of the mainland would move down to Level 2, allowing the opening of indoor pubs, cafes and restaurants, cinemas, theatres, casinos bingo halls.

While most islands will move to Level 1, with greater socialising allowed.

Hugging family and friends who had been off-limits will also be allowed in most of Scotland, with no physical distancing required for permitted household visits.

From May 17, six people from three households wil be able to meet in each other’s homes, with overnight stays allowed.

Six people from three households can also meet indoors in cafes, pubs or restaurants, which can now serve alcohol indoors to 10.30pm in booked two-hour slots, not just outdoors. 

However nightclubs will remain closed across Scotland, even in Level 1 areas, prompting the industry to complain it was "stuck in perpertual limbo" with no exit date.

The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) Scotland, which is already suing the Scottish Government over the rules being applied to it, urged Ms Sturgeon to hold a "crisis summit" before up to 39,000 jobs were lost.

Setting out the changes at a Covid update in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said she was open to the idea.

Dr Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said it had been “a very long wait” for businesses in Scotland’s events and leisure sectors, and called for the rapid reopening of other parts of the economy, particularly offices.

She said: “With the go-ahead to re-open on 17th May, more businesses can now re-open with certainty and safely welcome back customers.

“To fully support these sectors to make up for a year of lost trade, we need remaining sectors that remain gridlocked in uncertainty to be re-opened as quickly as possible. 

“Specifically, we need to see the Scottish Government pick up the pace on the re-opening of offices in our towns and city centres. 

“This would not only support the health and wellbeing of our employees but would also support the recovery and restart of our vibrant cities and towns.”

Dr Cameron also called for rapid support grants for businesses still locked down in Moray. 

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, said Ms Sturgeon’s announcement had been expected but was very much welcome nevertheless. 

She said: “Since a partial reopening on 26 April, Scotland’s pubs and bars which could utilise outdoor spaces have given it a real go, but ultimately the weather and the restriction to alcohol service indoors has made trading viably a real difficulty. 

“The recommencement of indoor service from Monday will give a real boost to the country’s hospitality sector and operators are looking forward to welcoming customers back again safely.

“A full start to the recovery is still someway off for our sector though, with the ongoing curfew having a devastating impact on many premises. 

“The First Minister must look at removing the curfew as soon as possible, and at the very least, in time for the country moving to Level 1 in early June. 

“With no further economic support and trading extremely difficult, we run the risk of businesses failing just before the recovery begins.”

The Federation of Small Businesses, said the easing was “a leap forward” for the bulk of Scottish business, allowing a welcome return of customers and scope for profit.

Scottish policy chair Andrew McRae said: “While the easing of restrictions is no guarantee of a full recovery for small businesses, many leaders of local and independent firms will have a spring in their step after today’s news.

However David Groundwater, the FSB’s Development Manager for Moray, said the likely continuation of restrictions there would “worry many local firms”.

He said: “If Moray is to remain at level 3 then new cash to support these operators must be dispersed quickly. After this point we’d urge the Scottish Government to ease restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Nightclubs said they were being unfairly treated.

NTIA Scotland chairman, Mike Grieve, said: “As our neighbours south of the border prepare to unlock and remove all restrictions within the coming weeks, in Scotland we remain stuck in perpetual limbo with still no indicative date for reopening or even an outline of the conditions which will allow nightlife to restart.

“We again ask the Scottish Government to work with us directly and urgently on establishing a constructive path towards the unrestricted reopening of the culturally important and economically valuable night time economy sector and to save the thousands of jobs currently at risk.

“Meantime, our legal action continues to gather support as we await a full response from Scottish Government legal representatives.”

Vice chairman Gavin Stevenson added: “For thousands of hard-pressed, night-time economy businesses being bankrupted by the commercially unviable levels system, May 17 is a reopening in name only.

“While people in England can now hug and kiss friends and family, and huge music festivals are being sold out this summer, people in Scotland are forced to revert to two-metre social distancing even to listen to an acoustic musician at Level 0 in the restrictions system.”

Speaking at the briefing today, the First Minister announced that pool and snooker halls would be able to open from Monday, after previous plans considering them to be on the same level as nightclubs.

The First Minister said she was open to a nightclub industry summit: “We’ll be happy to talk, as we have done on an ongoing basis, to any group in any sector.

“Specifically on culture… we’ll shortly be announcing additional an £40 million of funding which is going to allow Creative Scotland to run a second round of the cultural organisations and venues recovery fund and also the performing arts relief fund.

“The purpose of that will be to help eligible organisations that didn’t receive funding in the first round so there is some further financial support that’s coming very shortly.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: "The snooker and pool hall owners have really suffered from the Covid ban. So today’s change of heart from the Scottish Government is good news.

"I’m pleased the government has recognised the logic and validity of the snooker and pool owners’ campaign.”

Brian Links, who owns two Glasgow-based pool and snooker venues – and led a campaign with more than 30 other clubs – said: “We have campaigned for a long time to have snooker and pool halls given a decent break under Covid rules in the same way as pubs, restaurants and casinos.

“But we feared that although casinos would open snooker halls would still be banned.

“So we welcome the Scottish Government’s change of mind. Although to be honest we could say it’s not before time that the anomaly blighting snooker and pool was ended.”