Nicola Sturgeon has unveiled last-minute changes to the Level 0 Covid restrictions Scotland will move down to on Monday as she postponed abolishing social distancing outdoors and warned face masks would be required indefinitely.

In a shifting of the goalposts, the First Minister said she had “modified” what will be permitted in Level 0 to take account of the delta variant, with pubs forced to shut their doors at midnight instead of following local licensing laws.

Rather than abolishing social distancing outdoors, as she originally promised, she outlined a series of complicated new rules for gatherings. These will allow 15 people to meet outdoors but they will have to maintain distance with other individuals or groups.

She also delayed the return of workers to offices and warned the mandatory wearing of face coverings “will remain in place not just now but, in all likelihood, for some time to come.”

In one of several digs at Boris Johnson, she said of face coverings: “We shouldn’t lift important restrictions to make our lives easier and then expect the public to take responsibility for doing the right thing anyway.”

She added: “It is not me crying Freedom Day anytime soon. I think trying to declare premature victory against this virus is a fool’s paradise.”

But, although she portrayed herself as more responsible than the Prime Minister, Ms Sturgeon stuck by plans to remove all major legal restrictions and social distancing on Aug 9. She also followed Mr Johnson’s decisions in England over:

  • Axing the requirement of double-jabbed Scots to self-isolate for 10 days if they are deemed to be a close contact of a Covid case and test negative
  • Allowing people with both doses to travel from amber countries like France and mainland Spain without quarantining
  • Examining allowing NHS workers and school pupils to avoid self-isolating if they test negative after being deemed a close contact.

Business leaders welcomed the move to the new Level 0 but the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC) said “moving the goalposts at this late stage will cause uncertainty, negatively impacting on business confidence and recovery.”

Liz Cameron, the trade body’s chief executive, said the postponement of the phased return of offices was “a bitter blow for employees and employers alike” and would “sound alarm bells for those town and city centre businesses”.

Andrew McRae, the chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, called for greater simplicity in future, saying: “A jumble of regulations, guidance and best practice all bumping into each other and confusing everyone is a recipe for trouble.”

Stephen Montgomery, a spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said Ms Sturgeon’s “midnight curfew is just a made-up time with no evidence to justify it”.

Scotland was originally supposed to move to the lowest Level 0 of Ms Sturgeon’s five-tier system of restrictions on June 28, but she slammed on the brakes in response to the more transmissible delta variant.

Most of the Central Belt remained in Level 2 and the rest of the mainland in Level 1, while cases climbed to a record high earlier this month, with Scotland becoming the Covid capital of Europe.

In a specially convened virtual session of the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon said average daily cases had fallen by 15 per cent since July 4.

Scotland's modified Level 0

However, the number of people in hospital has surged in the past three weeks from 171 to 506, with the total in intensive care more than doubling from 18 to 42. The First Minister told MSPs the delta variant is “something of a game-changer”.

Arguing for a “gradual approach”, she said all of Scotland would move to Level 0 on Monday “with certain modifications” including on physical distancing.

A plan to halve social distancing requirements indoors from two metres to one will go ahead but they will no longer be scrapped entirely outdoors. Instead she said: “There will be a requirement for one-metre distancing between different groups of 15.”

She said the start of workers going back to the office would be delayed until Aug 9 and directed a barb at the Prime Minister over his prevarication over whether face masks should continue to be a legal requirement in some settings.

“It is my view that if the Government believes measures like this matter – and we do – we should say so, do what is necessary to ensure compliance, and take any resulting flak from those who disagree,” she said.

Ms Sturgeon added: “We must stick to a cautious approach. We are easing restrictions next week, but we are not abandoning them.

“And even when we move beyond Level 0, we will continue to require some baseline measures such as face coverings.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, pointed out Scotland’s vaccination rate was at its lowest for three months and urged her to fix the country’s struggling Test and Protect contact tracing system.

He said: “The balance has to tilt further in favour of moving forward. We have to make progress back to normality.

“The public have done what was expected of them. Now it is time for this SNP Government to deliver and hold up their end of the bargain.”

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said “the inconsistent decision-making and inconsistent communications over the past few weeks has had a negative impact on the pandemic response.”