Scotland set to return to level system from late April
The First Minister has outlined a new route map out of lockdown, confirming plans to revert to a level system from the last week in April.
Nicola Sturgeon warned there was "limited scope" for easing restrictions at this stage but explained the Scottish Government's priorities and indicative timeframes in an address to MSPs this afternoon.
She said the strategic framework was "deliberately cautious" but that as positive trends, such as evidence of reduced COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations, continue, the government will look to accelerate the easing of measures.
Sturgeon said she hopes that all parts of the country currently under level four restrictions will be able to move initially to level three from the last week in April and afterwards to other levels, depending on the prevalence of the virus.
"The advantages of the level system, of course, is it will allow us to let some parts of the country move faster than others if the data supports that," she said.
"Moving back to the variable levels system at that time will also be contingent on us having vaccinated all JCVI priority groups one to nine, which... we hope to have done by mid-April.
"That matters not only because these groups will be more protected but also because we believe that vaccinating around half of the population will have a significant effect on reducing transmission across society as a whole, and although we don't yet know exactly how big an effect that will be, we do hope and believe it will give us the headroom to carefully ease restrictions."
From the last week of April, it is expected there will be "phased but significant" reopening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services such as gyms and hairdressers.
Further detail on the order of reopenings, along with any revisions to particular tiers in the level system, will be set out in mid-March.
Sturgeon added: "We envisage a progressive easing of the current level four restrictions that apply across most of the country at intervals of at least three weeks, along with changes nationally on education and care home visiting, and the immediate priority will continue to be the return of schools.
"All of these easings will of course depend on an assessment that it is safe to proceed. The first easing started yesterday with the partial return of schools. In addition, universties and colleges are able to bring back a small number of students – no more than five per cent of the total – where face-to-face teaching is critical.
"We will also ease restrictions on care home visiting from early March."
The next phase of easing is expected to be from 15 March, when the government hopes to see pupils in primary four to seven return to school and more senior phase secondary pupils back in the classroom for part of their learning.
In this phase, it is hoped outdoor non-contact group sports for 12 to 17-year-olds can restart, as well as increasing the limit on outdoor mixing between households to four people from a maximum of two households.
From 5 April, it is expected the stay at home restriction will be lifted, with a final phase of school return on this date.
A return of communal worship, albeit with restricted numbers, is also expected around then.
Restrictions on household gatherings should be eased further so six people from two households can meet together. In this phase, there will be a reopening of retail.
Three weeks after that – from 26 April – Scotland will move back to tiers, with all of Scotland due to move to level three. At that stage the economy will be reopened more substantially.
Criticisms over the route map have been levelled at Sturgeon by the Scottish Conservatives, with the party's Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson saying the statement in parliament "fell short of public expectations".
She added: "We didn’t get information about when measures like social distancing will end and when we will be able to do something as basic as give a loved one a hug.
"Everyone understands that we might not be able to give people absolute certainty, but they were at least expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope.
"Nothing has been published about what happens after 26 April. This isn’t a route map out of COVID, it is a holding document.
"People didn’t tune in today expecting to be told to tune in again in three weeks’ time. They have a right to be disappointed that Nicola Sturgeon is not giving them a plan to get back to normality."