Scotland is less than seven weeks away from a "Freedom Day", Nicola Sturgeon has insisted, after she unveiled plans to scrap all major Covid-19 restrictions, including social distancing, on Aug 9.

The First Minister confirmed all of Scotland would finally move to Level 0 of her five-tier lockdown system on July 19 after a delay of three weeks amid concerns about a surge caused by the delta variant (formerly referred to as the Indian variant).

On that date, assuming she announces no further delays and sufficient progress is made with the vaccination programme, social distancing will be abandoned outdoors and halved to a metre indoors.

Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to lift all remaining major restrictions on Aug 9, including social distancing indoors, allowing life in Scotland to return to "almost complete normality".

She said her target date depended on all Scots over 40 being vaccinated with two jabs a fortnight earlier, on July 26. A final assessment will be made nearer the time about whether to press ahead with the lifting of indoor distancing.

However, she warned that Scots would be required to continue wearing face coverings in some settings such as shops and public transport, and her government would not advise a full return to office working.

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Self-isolation would still be required in "certain circumstances", especially for those who tested positive, and Ms Sturgeon raised the prospect of reintroducing regional tiers of restrictions to deal with outbreaks.

In a blow to Scots hoping for a foreign summer holiday, she also said that "targeted" travel restrictions would continue after Aug 9 "as new variants continue to pose the biggest threat to our progress". 

Her announcement suggested that Scots will have to wait longer than the English for their own Freedom Day after Boris Johnson said his July 19 date for a "terminus point" south of the border was "looking good".

It came despite the number of daily cases in Scotland surging to 2,167, the highest total since Jan 8, after it increased by more than 40 per cent in the past week alone.

However, Ms Sturgeon confirmed that the UK’s successful vaccination programme was breaking the link between case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths, "allowing us to change how we respond to the virus". 

Scotland’s business leaders welcomed the move and relaxations she announced to restrictions on the wedding industry, with suppliers and other staff at wedding venues no longer counting towards a cap on guest numbers.

However, the beleaguered tourism industry said the delay to restrictions being eased would inflict further damage, with schools breaking up this week and Scots planning days out and holidays.

‘Brazen overreach’

The Tories also accused the SNP government of a "brazen overreach" after it tabled legislation extending its extraordinary emergency Covid-19 powers by a further six months until the end of March next year.

Despite the existing powers not expiring until September, ministers are seeking Holyrood’s approval for the extension before MSPs go on their summer holidays at the end of this week.

Ms Sturgeon’s original "route map" out of lockdown would have seen the whole of Scotland move to Level 0 next Monday, but she postponed her timetable amid concern about rising infections.

Nearly all the Central Belt remains in Level 2, with the rest of the mainland in Level 1 and island communities such Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles in Level 0.

The First Minister said her government’s strategic aim had now shifted from keeping the virus suppressed to the lowest possible level to allowing "a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future”.

Stating that vaccination was a "significant factor" in her revised timetable for easing lockdown, Ms Sturgeon said everyone over 50 and the clinically vulnerable will have received both their jabs by Sunday. 

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All adults are on course to have received their first jab by July 18 and everyone aged 40 and over will get both doses by July 26. By Aug 20, all Scots aged 30 and over are expected to have had both jabs and this milestone will have been completed for both adults by Sep 12.

Ms Sturgeon said all of Scotland will move to Level 0 on July 19 as "three weeks will have elapsed since the completion of the vaccination programme for over-50s, which means that the vaccine will be giving everyone in that age group a significant level of protection". 

She confirmed social distancing would be removed outdoors and reduced to a metre indoors and disclosed that all limits on outdoor social gatherings would be removed.

However, she said restrictions on outdoor organised gatherings would remain for the time being "given these can attract much larger crowds".

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Ms Sturgeon said the "vast majority" of over-40s will have a "significant level of protection" by Aug 9 and it would be "possible and proportionate to lift the  major remaining legal restrictions". 

In addition to wearing face coverings, she said there will still have to be "rigorous and regular hand washing", cleaning of surfaces, good ventilation and regular testing.

Ms Sturgeon said ministers would work with business leaders to "agree an appropriate phasing" on people returning to the office but "as a general principle, home working should be more possible post Covid than it was before."

However, Murdo Fraser, the Conservative’s Shadow Covid Recovery Secretary, said: "The thought of Covid laws continuing until 2022 will make people across Scotland uneasy.

"On the same day that a new SNP government framework proposes easing most restrictions by August, it looks hasty and rash to force through Covid laws that don’t even expire until the end of September.

Business reaction

Scotland’s crisis-hit tourism industry has called for a major campaign to attract visitors from the rest of the UK after Nicola Sturgeon announced restrictions will continue well beyond the start of the Scottish summer holidays.

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA), demanded a "highly visible marketing campaign" to woo people from south of the border "beyond the Scottish school summer holiday, and well into the autumn."

With Scotland’s schools breaking up this week, several weeks earlier than in England, he said Ms Sturgeon’s announcement that the easing of lockdown will be delayed for three weeks was "disappointing". 

He said the revised date of July 19 for all of Scotland to enter Level 0 of Ms Sturgeon’s five-tier system was "almost three weeks into our summer season" and would particularly hit the self-catering sector.

The Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC) said there would only be a week of the Scottish school holidays remaining after Ms Sturgeon’s Freedom Day, and its members "will have effectively lost the entire summer season". 

Clarity on borders

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, added: "The business community need greater detail on when our borders will re-open and Scotland will start welcoming international visitors again."

The call came after the First Minister banned travel between Scotland and Manchester, preventing millions of people from holidaying north of the border.

However, business group CBI Scotland expressed relief that she had decided against "a return to damaging stop-start restrictions – with a path to normal trading finally visible". 

Tracy Black, director, CBI Scotland, said: "Irreversibility rather than speed is the key concern for firms that hope they are now in the home straight."