Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that Scotland will move on 19 July to a “modified” form of level 0 of her government’s five-tier system of Covid controls, but with continuing restrictions around physical distancing and numbers meeting both indoors and outdoors, as the first minister underlined that “we are easing restrictions next week but we are not abandoning them”.
The wearing of masks will remain mandatory “for some time to come”, she said, and the gradual return to working from offices will be postponed until 9 August, when the Scottish government aims to remove remaining legal restrictions.
Speaking to MSPs, who had been recalled from their summer recess for the announcement, Sturgeon said the latest modifications were to “ensure that our pace of easing restrictions is sensible in light of the challenge we continue to face from the Delta variant”.
Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament that the peak of the latest Delta wave appeared to have levelled off, after case numbers accelerated dramatically over the past few weeks, making Scotland one of the worst hotspots in Europe, according the WHO.
With hospitals facing acute workforce pressures as a result of large numbers of staff having to self-isolate, Sturgeon announced plans to remove the blanket requirement for close contacts of those who test positive to self-isolate, as long as they have been double-vaccinated and have had a negative PCR test result.
From Monday, up to eight people from up to four households can meet indoors at home and up to 10 people from up to four households can meet in a public indoor space, such as a pub or restaurant. Up to 15 people from up to 15 households can meet outdoors, whether in a private garden or public place, and children under 12 will not count towards the total number of people or households.
There will also be extensions to larger gatherings: up to 200 people will be able to attend weddings and funerals from Monday, and limits on the size of events and stadia attendances will increase outdoors to 2,000 seated and 1,000 standing, and indoors to 400.
Sturgeon said that, while she had hoped to remove the need for physical distancing outdoors completely, “for precautionary reasons” for the next three weeks at least there will be a requirement for 1-metre distancing between different groups of 15.
Another modification relates to hospitality venues, which must close at midnight. Sturgeon said this reflected the fact that indoor hospitality – “despite the sector’s sterling efforts” – remained a relatively risky environment, particularly later at night when people may be less likely to follow rules.
With restrictions easing in Scotland on the same day as they are further relaxed in England, Sturgeon warned that “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”.
Sturgeon said it remained her government’s expectation that by 9 August it would be possible to move “beyond level 0”, by which time almost everyone over the age of 40 will have had their second vaccine dose at least two weeks previously.
She added: “As with today’s decisions, we will assess the data before coming to a final decision nearer the time, and I will provide a further update to parliament in the week before 9 August.”