People across Scotland will be able to meet in bigger groups from Friday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.
From Friday, four people from two households will be able to meet outdoors for exercise and social recreation.
For children aged between 12 and 17, outdoor meetings will also be limited to four people but these can be from up to four households.
Ms Sturgeon stressed people should stay “as close to home” as possible – ruling out an easing of travel restrictions, but said they will be eased slightly for children taking part in sport where their club may be a “bit outside” their council area.
The first minister also announced changes to the rules around religious gatherings in time for Easter, Ramadan, Passover and Vaisakhi.
Communal worship will restart from Monday March 26 – in time for Easter, Ramadan, Passover and Vaisakhi. Up to 50 people will be allowed to attend, as long as places of worship have the capacity to comply with social distancing measures.
The easing of restrictions comes amid “good progress” in the vaccination programme and a landscape of falling Covid case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths, though the first minister said figures are “still higher than we would want them to be”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “From Friday we intend to relax the law so up to four adults from two households will be able to meet outdoors, and in addition we will make clear in the guidance that this will allow for social and recreation purposes as well as essential exercise.”
People will be able to meet in any outdoor space, including private gardens, although the first minister reminded people they should still only go indoors if it is essential in order to reach the garden or to use a toilet.
She also urged people to stay as close to home as possible, adding that the government hoped to relax some travel restrictions within Scotland “in the weeks ahead”.
📢Covid-19 restriction update from the Scottish Government 📢👏 Case numbers are reducing and test positivity is…
Also from Friday, outdoors non-contact sports and organised group exercises will be permitted for all adults in groups of up to 15 people.
There will also be added flexibility in the travel rules for young people, so children are not prevented from taking part in sport if they belong to a club that is slightly outside their local authority area.
The first minister announced that changes to rules on religious gatherings would be brought forwards.
Previously, Nicola Sturgeon had said there was a possibility religious buildings could open a few days earlier than April 5, when the stay at home restrictions are to be eased, to accommodate particular holidays.
Today she announced, “assuming no deterioration in the situation with the virus”, that places of worship could reopen on March 26 – in time for Ramadan, Passover, Easter and Vaisakhi.
She said: “I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been difficult for many people, despite the exceptional efforts made by faith groups to reach out to their communities.
“This change is a proportionate step, which we believe can be achieved relatively safely, and which will hopefully enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship.”
The announcement of some easing from this Friday comes as a number of measures show Scotland’s coronavirus situation is improving.
There were 466 new cases recorded around the country today, the third-lowest total since November, while the number of patients in Scottish hospitals with Covid dropped by 40 in the last 24 hours.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The average test positivity rate is now just above 3%, admissions to hospitals and intensive care units are also falling, and the number of deaths – though still heartbreakingly high – has almost halved since the third week of January.”
Those on JCVI priority lists eight and nine, which includes people aged between 50 and 59, will now be invited to receive their first dose of the Covid vaccine.
There has been a dip in vaccinations due to supply issues, but they are expected to improve again by the middle of March.
Ms Sturgeon said that plans are being drafted to mark the anniversary of the first Covid death in Scotland and when lockdown was first imposed.
This will include a national silence on March 23.
She added: “We’re also discussing how communities can be supported to develop their own commemorative activities over the coming year, as part of longer term plans for remembrance, and I will set out more detail of all of this over the next fortnight.”