Nicola Sturgeon has urged collective caution as Scotland prepares to further relax Covid-19 restrictions from Monday.
The first minister confirmed the country will move to Level 0 of Covid lockdown restrictions from July 19, in an update to the Scottish Parliament.
This is the same day that Boris Johnson is to end all remaining legal restrictions in England, including the mandatory wearing of face coverings.
Ms Sturgeon said the success of the vaccination programme meant restrictions could be eased as planned next week but with “certain modifications”.
However, she faced criticism from opposition colleagues who called for action on Test and Protect, vaccinations and the ‘pandemic-proofing’ of schools.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs face coverings would remain mandatory “in all likelihood for some time to come”.
She said this would avoid a “two-tier society” where those who are clinically vulnerable would be forced to “shield by default”, if masks were dropped.
Ms Sturgeon, defending her more cautious approach, said the Scottish Government was choosing to do things at “a responsible pace, not an irresponsible pace”.
While Monday has been dubbed “Freedom Day” south of the border with the remaining restrictions about to be lifted, Ms Sturgeon said she would not be “standing up here and crying ‘Freedom Day’ anytime soon”.
Instead she cautioned: “I think trying to declare premature victory against this virus is a fool’s paradise and we should not do it because it will be other people who pay the price for that.”
‘Lack of clear strategy’
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar called on the first minister to adopt a ‘new approach’ to deal with the new phase of the pandemic.
He called out “inconsistent communications” from the Scottish Government and urged Ms Sturgeon to “fully resource and fix” the Test and Protect system and to speed up the vaccination programme.
He added: “The high rate of cases is a cause for concern and I’m afraid what the first minister has presented today is not a clear strategy to cope with the new phase of the pandemic.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged the first minister to boost the flagging Test and Protect system and follow the UK Government in establishing a network of long Covid clinics.
He said: “On Test and Protect, standards have dropped. Instead of restoring those high standards, the SNP have lowered the bar and weakened the criteria, as reports this week uncovered.”
Ms Sturgeon said the system was “always going to be under pressure when cases are rising” but added the Scottish Government is making additional resource available.
Willie Rennie, who announced he will stand down as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats on Monday, pressed Ms Sturgeon on whether self-isolation rules could change for key workers such as health and social care workers.
It comes after three code blacks were issued by health boards across Scotland – including NHS Grampian and NHS Highland – to free up frontline staff as Covid-19 cases mount.
The first minister indicated such a system was being tested and could be brought in ahead of the relaxation of self-isolation for those who have been double jabbed and have a negative PCR test.
In response, Mr Rennie said: “The situation is urgent now so my concern is that the first minister is taking too long.”
A total of 2,529 cases were reported across Scotland in the last 24 hours – representing 11.5% of all tests.
Hospital admissions and intensive care cases have risen in recent weeks, from 171 people in hospital and 18 people in intensive care three weeks ago to 506 and 42 respectively in the new data.
A total of four deaths were recorded across the country in the last day.
Ms Sturgeon’s announcement comes a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed the “pandemic is not over” despite confirming the easing of restrictions on July 19.
Speaking during a Downing Street press conference on Monday, he acknowledged the current wave of cases would mean more hospital admissions and deaths.