Scotland will go ahead with plans to further ease coronavirus restrictions next week – but Nicola Sturgeon has insisted measures such as face masks will likely remain for “some time to come”, as she claimed lifting all restrictions right now “would put all of us at greater risk”
The First Minister told Scots the country would move to Level 0 – the lowest point in the five-tier system of restrictions north of the border – all be it with some changes, from July 19.
That is the same day that Boris Johnson is to end all remaining legal restrictions in England.
But Ms Sturgeon, defending her more cautious approach, insisted the Scottish Government was choosing to do things “at a responsible pace, not an irresponsible pace”.
Her message to the public was: “We will continue to ease restrictions – we are not slamming on the brakes – but we will do so carefully.”
While Monday has been dubbed “Freedom Day” south of the border with the remaining restrictions about to be lifted, Ms Sturgeon said she would not be “standing up here and crying ‘Freedom Day’ anytime soon”.
Instead she cautioned: “I think trying to declare premature victory against this virus is a fool’s paradise and we should not do it because it will be other people who pay the price for that.”
However the move to Level 0 for the Scottish mainland means that from Monday up to eight people from up to four households can meet within homes, while outside up to 15 people from up to 15 households can get together either in private gardens or public places.
Meanwhile up to 200 people will be able attend weddings and funerals, but under new changes made by the Scottish Government in response to high numbers of Covid cases in recent weeks, hospitality venues will have to shut at midnight.
This, Ms Sturgeon said, was because venues such as indoor bars and restaurants “remains a relatively risky environment, particularly later at night when people might be less likely to follow rules”.
Plans to lift physical distancing outdoors completely from July 19 have also been altered, so that while people can meet in groups of up to 15, different groups of people will have to stay at least one metre apart.
Proposals for a gradual return to the office have also been pushed back to August 9 – when Ms Sturgeon hopes to lift the remaining Covid-19 restrictions.
Speaking about the move to Level 0, the First Minister said: “It is not a complete and wholesale lifting of all restrictions – it was never intended to be.
“However, it does restore yet more freedom to all of us.”
She also announced that when Scotland moves “beyond Level 0”, hopefully on August 9, people who have had both doses of coronavirus vaccine will no longer need to self isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with someone with the virus – assuming they test negative and had their most recent vaccination more than two weeks previously.
The Scottish Government’s education advisory group will also consider “whether, to what extent and with what mitigations” the need to self isolate for 10 days should remain for school children who come into close contact with someone with Covid.
The First Minister said a further announcement on this would be made “well in advance of the new term”.
Meanwhile from Monday, travellers returning to Scotland from amber list countries will no longer need to self isolation at home, if they have been fully vaccinated and take a PCR test two days after their return.
Ms Sturgeon updated MSPs on the easing of restrictions as Holyrood was recalled from its summer recess for a special, virtual sitting.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross pressed the Government to act more quickly, insisting it was time to “move forward”.
He said: “We can’t continue asking the public to sacrifice so much of their lives when we promised them the vaccine would bring an end to restrictions.
“Consequences for mental health, physical health, and family finances have already been catastrophic. The balance has to tilt further in favour of moving forward. We have to make progress back to normality.”
But with four further coronavirus deaths and 2,529 new cases of the virus reported in the last 24 hours, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “Lifting all restrictions and mitigations right now would put all of us at greater risk – but in particular it would make it much more difficult for the most clinically vulnerable to go about their normal lives.
“It would risk the imposition of shielding by default and in my view that is not something we should do.”
She confirmed some measures “such as the mandatory wearing of face coverings will remain in place, not just now but, in all likelihood, for some time to come.”
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have said face masks will not be mandatory in England and instead their wearing will be dependent on individual choice.
But the First Minister stressed: “It is my view that if government believes measures like this matter – and we do – we should say so, do what is necessary to ensure compliance, and take any resulting flak from those who disagree.
“We shouldn’t lift important restrictions to make our lives easier and then expect the public to take responsibility for doing the right thing anyway.”