The Scottish Government will consider in the next week if the easing of restrictions can be accelerated, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
Updating MSPs in Holyrood, the First Minister said figures in the past week were encouraging, and said she and ministers would be considering if the exit from lockdown can be moved forward.
She also confirmed the next phase of school returns in Scotland will go ahead as planned on March 15.
She said: “The data I have reported shows real and sustained progress in getting the virus back under control.
“I have always said if we can go further and faster, then we will not hesitate to do so.
“All of us want to move on as quickly as possible – and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. I hope that day for that is now not too far away.
“But to make sure we don’t see any reverse in our progress that would put that in jeopardy, it is really important that, for now, we all need to abide by the lockdown rules.
“So please continue to stick to the letter and their spirit.”
The first minister told how data has strongly suggested that cases are still declining. This time last week an average of 815 new cases were recorded each day, which has now fallen to an average of 615 a day. This is the lowest level since the first week of October last year she said.
The average test positivity rate has also fallen and is now below 5%, and the number number of patients admitted to hospital has also declined.
In the first half of January more than 1,000 patients a week were being admitted to hospital, in the week up to February 23, that had fallen to 468.
The number in intensive care has also continued to decline.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Collectively, we are suppressing the virus, and saving lives.
“There is more reason to be optimistic now than at any time since early autumn.
“That said, we know we need to take care to avoid sending progress into reverse.”
33 coronavirus deaths recorded
Scotland has recorded a further 33 deaths from coronavirus.
This means the death toll under this measure – of people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days – remains at 7,164.
The latest Scottish Government statistics show 542 people have tested positive in Scotland in the last day.
Of these, 29 of the cases were in Tayside and 15 in Fife.
The daily test positivity rate is 4.4% down from 4.5% on the previous day.
There are 784 people in hospitals across Scotland confirmed to have the virus, a decrease of 40 from the previous day.
Of these patients, 71 are in intensive care.
Return to school
The next phase of school returns in Scotland will go ahead as planned on March 15, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.
Last week’s strategic framework said all primary school pupils would return full time, if data supported the return.
From March 15, unless new evidence or new circumstances force the government to reconsider, all children in Primary 4 to 7 will go back to school on a full time basis. All primary school children will also be able to return to regulated childcare including after school and breakfast clubs.
A phased return to secondary school will also take place from March 15, with a clear expectation that all secondary school pupils will be back in school on a full-time basis following the Easter holidays.
It is the intention that all secondary pupils will return to spend some time in school from March 15 until the Easter holidays.
Students in years four to six in secondary school, who are taking national qualifications, will be given priority access for face-to-face lessons in school.
However, the first minister added that all pupils in secondary school will receive some in-school education each week up to the Easter break and then return full-time following that.
When secondary schools return, face coverings will have to be worn at all times and physical distancing guidelines followed.
The First Minister also urged school staff and older secondary pupils to take up the lateral flow tests being made available.
She said: “I would encourage as many staff and senior phase pupils as possible to use the tests when they return to school. It is a further important way in which we can ensure that schools remain as safe as possible.”
The first minister added they will continue to ensure remote learning is of the highest standard possible and guidance for local authorities on the phased return will be published over the next few days.
Thanks to parents, children and young people
Nicola Sturgeon thanked school staff for their work to support young people during the pandemic.
The First Minister said: “I know everyone is looking forward to having children back in the classroom as soon as possible.
“I also want to thank parents across the country. I can only imagine how difficult all of this disruption continues to be – but I hope, and believe, that the end of it is now firmly in sight.
“And my thanks too to children and young people. I know how hard it must be to be separated from friends and teachers.
“But you have responded magnificently to all the difficulties of the last year.
“I hope that you are looking forward to getting back to school later this month.”
Supporting new parents
Guidance on entering people’s homes will be amended by the Scottish Government to make clear supporting new parents is allowed.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs in Holyrood: “We are amending guidance on this today, to make it clear that those essential purposes include support for the welfare and wellbeing of a parent of a child under the age of one.
“I hope that gives clarity – and enables vital support – for parents of very young children.”