Nicola Sturgeon hopes to lift the stay at home order in Scotland from April 5, the first minister has told Holyrood.
The country will return to a regional levels system and see a “substantial re-opening of the economy” from April 26 if suppression of the virus continues.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs the five-level system will return and it is hoped that every area of Scotland will be in a position to drop down to level 3.
The first minister categorised the current situation as “extremely positive and promising” but said there was not much room for easing restrictions at the moment.
She said: “The bottom line is, and this is the clear message from our clinical advisers, is we have quite limited scope for easing restrictions at this stage.
“Our current position is extremely positive and promising, and we should all take heart from, but still quite precarious and if we are to sustain our progress we do need to exercise care and caution.”
The R number is currently below one in Scotland but it “would likely not take very much right to push it back up”.
Ms Sturgeon added: “We must get the virus to as low a level as possible. We know from experience that when the virus is allowed to simmer at relatively high levels in the community that the risk of it accelerating out of control and causing more illness is most acute.”
While the first minister said she hoped to give “as much clarity as possible” during her statement at Holyrood today, she also said she wanted to avoid “giving false assurances or picking arbitrary dates that have no grounding in this stage in any objective assessment”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I am as confident as I can be that the indicative, staged timetable that I have set out today – from now until late April when the economy will start to substantially reopen – is a reasonable one.
Our current position is extremely positive and promising, but still quite precarious.
“And in mid-March – when we have made further progress on vaccines and have greater understanding of the impact of the initial phase of school return – I hope we can set out then more detail of the further reopening that will take place over April and May and into a summer when we hope to be living with much greater freedoms than we are today.”
The Scottish Government is planning to give more information on the country’s route out of lockdown in mid-March and the process will be reviewed every three weeks.
The next phase of the phased return for schools is likely to begin on March 15.
This is expected to involve P4-P7 pupils returning as well as more senior phase pupils in secondary schools, along with an increase in outdoor mixing to four people from two households.
Communal worship, a further extension to outdoor mixing and more freedoms in retail are also hoped to be put in place from April 5, with Ms Sturgeon saying her “hope and expectation” is the stay at home order will be lifted then and all pupils back at school.
Today’s announcement should not put anyone in a hurry to book a summer holiday abroad as travel restrictions are set to remain in place “for some time yet”.
The first minister said it was important that cases of the virus, particularly of new variants of the virus, were not imported into the country.
She said: “We saw over the summer how new cases were imported into Scotland, after the virus had almost been eliminated. We do not want that to happen again.
“In particular we do not want to import new variants of the virus, which could be more resistant to the vaccines that we are currently using.
“And so the strategic framework rightly emphasises the importance of both travel restrictions and test and protect. They will help us to ease restrictions safely.”
Could restrictions be eased before these dates?
The good news is, yes, restrictions could still be eased further before the April 5 and April 26 dates talked about today.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I want to be clear that in the coming weeks if the data allows, and positive trends continue, we will seek to accelerate the easing of the restrictions.”
But given the Scottish Government’s cautious approach to unlocking the country, it seems unlikely.
The return of the levels system means those in the Highlands and islands, and particularly those in the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney, are likely to see more things opening up more quickly than those in Scotland’s major cities.
The latest statistics
A total of 655 positive coronavirus cases have been registered in the past 24 hours in Scotland.
The new figure accounts for 4.8% of all newly-tested individuals.
There are 1,076 in hospital with Covid, 63 fewer than yesterday, and 93 of those are in intensive care, six fewer than yesterday.
There have been 56 new deaths registered, taking the country’s total to 7,006.
A total of 1,465,241 have received the first dose of a vaccine, meaning around one-third of Scotland’s adult population have now had theirs.
Everyone in the top four clinical priority groups should now have their first vaccine and 82% of people aged 65 to 69 have had theirs.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new four-step plan to ease England’s lockdown last night.
If all goes to plan, it means all legal limits on social contact will be lifted by June 21.
Shops, hairdressers, gyms and outdoor hospitality could re-open on April 12.
Two households might be allowed to mix in homes from May 17 and the rule of six could apply to places like pubs.
Mr Johnson in his address said his plan aimed to be “cautious but not irreversible”, adding that there is “no credible route to a zero-Covid Britain nor indeed a zero-Covid world”.