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The easing of Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland is likely to be pushed back by three weeks, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said. The whole country had been due to move to the lowest level zero of its five-tier system from 28 June.
However Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that this was likely to be be delayed by three weeks so that more people can be vaccinated against the virus.
The Covid case rate in Scotland is five times higher than it was in early May.
Nicola Sturgeon: “We need to buy sufficient time for vaccination to get ahead and stay ahead of the virus, and that is the reason for caution at this juncture. Doing that will give us the best chance, later in July, of getting back on track and restoring the much greater normality that we all crave.”
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that plans to lift restrictions in England would be pushed back by four weeks until 19 July.
A formal decision will not be taken until next week, but Ms Sturgeon said it was “reasonable to indicate now that I think it unlikely that any part of the country will move down a level” as planned.
It means the country’s mainland council areas will remain in either level one or level two, although many island communities including Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are already in level zero.
Ms Sturgeon said the vaccination programme was weakening the link between the rising number of cases – largely driven by the so-called Delta variant that was first detected in India – and serious illness and deaths.
But she said there were still too many people who have not yet had both doses of the vaccine.
She also said she did not want to “commit to firm dates” for easing restrictions, saying she was “not going to give false guarantees” in the face of an “unpredictable virus”.
The Scottish government says the whole adult population will have been offered an appointment for a first dose of the vaccine by the end of next week.
The first minister added: “The vaccination programme is going exceptionally well and it is being rolled out just as quickly as supplies allow. But there is still a significant proportion of the population that isn’t yet fully vaccinated.
“To be blunt, that remains our biggest vulnerability at this stage – and it is a significant one.”
While the wider easing of restrictions is likely to be delayed, ministers will consider whether some rules could be changed to correct “perceived anomalies”.
Many soft play owners, for example, have questioned why their facilities remain closed in level two areas while trampoline centres are allowed to open.
The government is also to publish the outcome of a review of physical distancing rules, along with a report on what life could look like once Scotland moves beyond level zero – which Ms Sturgeon said she hoped could still happen “later in the summer”.
She said breaking the link between cases and hospital admissions would allow for a move to a “fundamentally different way of dealing with this virus” with “far, far less restrictions and hopefully no meaningful restrictions at all”.
‘Summer of freedom’
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said people would be “frustrated” that restrictions looked set to continue for “weeks or even months”, pressing for more detail on when the vaccination programme would be complete.
He said: “We had all hoped for a summer of freedom but instead this stubborn virus is determined to keep us scunnered instead.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said “consistent communication and decision making” was vital during the pandemic, saying: “There have been mixed messages that do not help maintain public trust”.
He said plans for life after level zero would have to reflect that “ultimately we will have to live to learn with this virus”.