Nicola Sturgeon has told Scots there are “much brighter times ahead” as she revealed details of how the coronavirus lockdown could be eased.
While the First Minister said she expected the stay-at-home order would have to remain in place until April 5, she indicated that more children could go back to the classroom from March 15.
She also suggested the ban on communal worship could be lifted – possibly in time for Easter and Passover.
Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament “if all goes according to plan”, the country will move back to the levels system of coronavirus restrictions from April 26, with all council areas moving to Level 3.
This will allow a “phased but significant reopening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services like gyms and hairdressers”, the First Minister said.
Ms Sturgeon’s statement to Holyrood did not go as far as Boris Johnson did on Monday – with the Prime Minister having given people in England a four-stage plan that could see all restrictions there lifted by June 21.
But the Scottish First Minister insisted she did not want to give “arbitrary” dates on when life could return to something more like normal.
She said: “The further into the future we go, the reality is any dates that we give at this stage are more arbitrary.
“It is like putting your finger in the wind and coming up with a date that is not firmly based in the evidence.”
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson insisted however that the First Minister’s new route map was nothing more than a “holding document for the next eight weeks”, adding that people had a “right to be disappointed”.
The Tory demanded: “Why won’t you let the people of Scotland know the plan to get them fully out of lockdown and back to their lives?”
The First Minister insisted, however, there was only “quite limited scope at this stage for easing restrictions” – saying that while the current situation was “extremely positive and promising” it was also “still quite precarious”.
But with the coronavirus vaccination programme now “motoring” – with 1,465,241 people in Scotland having had their first dose of the jab by Tuesday morning – she said she hoped “much greater freedoms” would be possible by the summer.
The Scottish Government, like the UK, is aiming to have offered first doses of the vaccine to all adults by the end of July – earlier than its previous target of September.
But, in the meantime, Ms Sturgeon stressed: “For now, however, the most important priority we still have is to suppress the virus.”
Speaking after confirming Scotland had recorded a further 655 Covid-19 infections and 56 more deaths in the past 24 hours, the First Minister told Scots: “I know how hard this continues to be after 11 long months of this pandemic.
“But the restrictions are working. The vaccination programme is motoring and we can now see a firm way out of this.
“So if we all stick together and stick with it, we are now able to say with confidence we are looking at much brighter times ahead.”
Under the revised road map out of lockdown, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that restrictions would be eased in phases, separated by at least three weeks and contingent on suppression of the virus continuing and vaccinations going to plan.
The partial return of pupils to schools, which took place on Monday, was the first phase, she said, with the second set to take place no earlier than March 15.
This should see pupils in P4 to P7 return to the classroom, while secondary school students could get “back in the classroom for at least part of their learning”, Ms Sturgeon said – leaving them facing the prospect of blended learning.
March 15 could also see an easing of the limits on outdoor mixing, from the current rules which only allow two people from two households to meet, moving to four people from two households.
With the “stay at home” order expected to lift on April 5, Ms Sturgeon said the “final phase” of a return to school would take place at this point – though this is during the Easter break.
At the same time, communal worship could also return, although Ms Sturgeon said that the government would “take account of the timing of major religious festivals, for example, Easter and Passover”.
A further easing of restrictions on outdoor meet-ups could see six people from two households get together from April 5, when ministers also hope to begin reopening the retail sector.
By mid-March, Ms Sturgeon said she hoped to set out “more detail of the further reopening that will take place over April and May” ahead of a “summer when we hope, really hope, to be living with much greater freedoms than we are today”.
She stressed however that travel restrictions will remain for “some time yet” as it is important that cases of the virus – and particularly new variants – are not imported into the country.