BUSINESS leaders have “breathed a great sigh of relief” after Nicola Sturgeon backed away from extending the Covid passport scheme before Christmas.

Opposition parties accused her of wasting precious time pursuing the wrong priority before making a U-turn.

After weeks of hints, the First Minister had been expected to expand the Covid certification for nightclubs and large events to pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres.

However in an update to MSPs this afternoon, she said the Scottish cabinet had made the “very finely balanced decision” not to implement such a change.

After furious lobbying by the hospitality sector, which feared a slump in trade at its busiest time of the year, she said the “inevitable impact” on business had been a factor.

But she said the situation remained “precarious”, despite cases currently stable or slightly declining, and the passport scheme could change over the hard winter ahead.

Ms Sturgeon also said that from December 6 people would be able to show negative lateral flow tests as an alternative to passports at the large venues still using them.

She also urged all people to take a lateral flow test before socialising or mixing with people from other household, “whether that is in a pub, restaurant, house or shopping centre”.

Dr Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses across Scotland will be incredibly relieved that the First Minister has listened to the concerns of the business community.

“Although this will have been a difficult decision on balance for the Scottish Government, it was the right one, and it keeps Scotland moving in the right direction.

“Businesses and consumers will now be reassured that they can make plans over the coming weeks in the run up to Christmas and New Year, without the fear of additional economic deterrents or vaccine certification burdens being placed on them.

“We are pleased that the Scottish Government have looked again at the available evidence and have acknowledged the clear benefits that lateral flow tests provide.

“This is what businesses were calling for and it will also significantly ease and improve access to hospitality settings for consumers. 

“Scotland was one of the few countries in Europe, where a vaccine certification scheme is in place, to not accept evidence of a recent negative LFT in lieu of an individual’s Covid vaccination status and confirmation that this will change from next month will be very welcome news for businesses, employees and customers.”

Paul Togneri of the Scottish Beer & Pub Association said: “Scotland’s pubs and bars have breathed a great sigh of relief with the First Minister’s statement today. 

“We have been in close dialogue with Ministers, Officials and public health discussing the potential economic impact and the operational practicalities extending the scheme would have entailed. 

“We are thankful to them for listening to us and in doing so, may have averted an economic disaster for many businesses this Christmas. 

“We will continue to work with Government to uphold the baseline measures, encourage uptake of vaccinations and boosters, and support all in keeping hospitality premises safe.”

Stephen Montgomery, Group Spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, added: "This is a good decision based on evidence. Our members also welcome the continued constructive engagement with the hospitality sector. 

"The health and safety of our customers has always been our top priority, and that is why we have invested heavily in making Scottish hospitality venues the safest public environments to eat, drink and socialise.

"We want to keep Scotland's best-loved pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants open for business and will continue to work tirelessly to do so.

"We echo the First Minister's message that the focus should continue be on vaccination and booster jags to keep the Scottish population safe and prevent further spread of the virus.

"Looking forward, we would urge for continued support for hospitality venues across Scotland, especially as the festive period approaches.

"Hospitality is still facing significant challenges and the suffering from the long-term effects of the pandemic, with rising supplier costs and an ongoing recruitment crisis putting real pressure on the industry." 

Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland policy chair, said: “It’s a relief that Ministers have taken on board the evidence from the FSB and others. Extending the vaccine passport scheme would have meant many local and independent Scottish hospitality and leisure firms making big changes to how they operate during a key trading period. These businesses will now have a weight off their shoulders.

“Feedback from our members showed that small cafés, restaurants and similar operators were worried that the extension would have put pressure on staff and driven up costs. It would have undermined many of these firms’ plans for the festive period, many of whom are amongst the businesses hardest hit by this crisis.

“We agree with the First Minister that citizens, government and businesses of all sizes have a role in keeping this virus under control.

"That’s why we’d urge all smaller firms to look again at the current covid rules and ask themselves if they’re doing everything in their power to play their part.”

At Holyrood, the opposition parties accused the Scottish Government of obstinacy for sticking to vaccine passports alone for so long, before conceding lateral flow tests could also be used. 

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said even the double-jabbed could catch and transmit coronavirus, and being virus-free was the real key, making tests vital.

He said: "From the start of the pandemic, the WHO has been clear that testing is the most effective way to control transmission of the virus.

“Scottish Labour has called repeatedly for the use of lateral flow tests as part of the scheme to reduce transmission.

"But instead of listening to medical and public health experts and businesses - the First Minister ignored everyone and ploughed on with a passport scheme which doesn't drive up vaccination rates.

“Winter is fast approaching, and the First Minister says we are in a precarious situation. We have spent months pursuing the wrong priority.

“I welcome the government’s U-turn today but it is clear that the First Minister has wasted months ignoring experts and the evidence.

“We must now urgently get a grip on transmission and that means looking to tackle the spread of the virus where it is moving fastest - in schools.

"We know how to mitigate against this - improve and increase ventilation.

"Ventilation schemes were unambitious and in many of Scotland's schools the best advice this winter is to just leave windows open.

"The First Minister often rightly calls on the public to listen to and follow expert advice - it would be refreshing for her to do the same."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton accused the Government of causing “weeks of uncertainty and panic” for Scottish business before bowing to common sense.

Scottish Green health spokesperson Gillian Mackay said: “The vaccine certification scheme was introduced as a response to high infection rates and a lack of available alternative options. 

“The Greens have been clear that the option of a negative lateral flow test should be added to the scheme. This will help ease fears about the scheme’s impact on marginalised groups, but also provide a boost to the numbers of people self-testing.

“No one wants the festive period to be ruined by a surge in cases, so it will be important for everyone to be vigilant and use self-testing kits before celebrating together. The expanded certification scheme will enable that.”