Most Scots will be able to hug their loved ones and meet indoors for first time in up to eight months from next Monday, with the country also moving to a traffic light system for foreign travel, in a significant relaxation of coronavirus restrictions.
Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland was “charting a course back to normality” as she announced the move from level 3 to 2 of her government’s five-tier system of Covid controls for the majority of the mainland, and confirmed her government would initially adopt the same set of 12 countries and territories on England’s green list.
The changes, which will come into force from 17 May, will allow up to six people from three households to meet up in their own homes, where physical distancing will no longer be required and with overnight stays now permitted. Indoors visiting has been banned in the west of Scotland since September.
Restrictions on meeting up outdoors will ease further, with up to eight adults from eight different households able to gather, but requirements on physical distancing will still apply outwith homes and private gardens.
As well as allowing pubs, restaurants and cafes to serve alcohol indoors until 10.30pm, cinemas, theatres and bingo halls can also reopen under level 2. Sports stadiums and music venues can open, with capacity limits, while adult outdoor contact sports and indoor group exercise will also be able to resume.
But Sturgeon said it was “highly probable” that the council area of Moray in the north-east of Scotland, where numbers of new cases are four times higher than elsewhere in the country, would remain at level 3.
“The situation in Moray, together with the emergence of new variants globally, should be a sharp reminder to all of us that the virus remains a real threat,” she said.
Local health officials have pointed to widespread community transmission, in particular among younger age groups, and the vaccine programme has been accelerated to include 18-39-year-olds. Sturgeon also said travel restrictions could be reimposed there.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s island communities have far lower rates of infection and good vaccine coverage, meaning restrictions there will be eased more quickly, down to level 1 on Monday.
Asked if her government would continue to mirror the travel lists agreed by the UK government, Sturgeon said: “We will not sign up to decisions that will put our progress at risk.”
Announcing the loosening of restrictions on foreign travel, Sturgeon asked Scots to consider how essential their journeys were. She said that while she accepted the importance of families reconnecting, “when it comes to holidays abroad my advice continues to be to err on the side of caution and staycation this summer”.
In February, Sturgeon warned about ongoing international travel restrictions, pointing to the experience last summer in Scotland when officials believed elimination of the virus was almost achieved, but it was then reseeded from overseas travel and travel across UK.
Asked if her government’s thinking had changed since then, she pointed out that mitigations such as quarantine and PCR testing had not been in place last summer. “We are being much more cautious this year … but like every other aspect of our life, we need to start to chart the course back to normality, even if with this case it is a more gradual course with greater mitigations required for longer. So it’s a much, much more cautious approach than the one that was taken last summer because we have worked really hard to learn the lessons.”