Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed the most significant return of freedoms in Scotland since lockdown began, but warned that reopening society would also bring “real dangers” as she again raised the prospect of imposing cross-border travel restrictions with England.
From Friday, people from three different households will be able to meet indoors for the first time since March, in groups of up to eight. And in a move that paves the way for large-scale family reunions this weekend, groups of up to 15 people, from five separate households, will be able to meet up outdoors as long as social distancing rules are followed.
With the country entering the third of four stages of easing lockdown, Ms Sturgeon confirmed that pubs, restaurants and cafes will be able to reopen indoor areas from Wednesday next week, when communal worship can also resume.
Hairdressers, tourist attractions, shopping centres and hotels will also reopen next week, along with dentists. Rules regulating numbers able to attend funerals and weddings will also be eased. Beauty salons will be able to open on July 22.
The two-metre distancing rule is being relaxed for businesses in some sectors, although wearing face coverings in shops become mandatory from Friday.
Ms Sturgeon said that while the easing of a raft of restrictions were a cause for “cautious hope”, with cases of the virus continuing to decline, she said she wanted to be “crystal clear with the country that this is also a time of real danger”.
The day after she confirmed that quarantine restrictions for travellers from Spain and Serbia would be maintained in Scotland, even though they will end in the rest of the UK, she said that she remained concerned about the potential for an influx of Covid-19 cases from other countries.
Previously the First Minister has refused to rule out imposing quarantine restrictions on people travelling to Scotland from other parts of the UK but insisted she has “no plans” to do so. However, in a shift of emphasis, she warned that introducing new restrictions on people from outside Scotland, including with other parts of the UK, would be kept “under review”.
Meanwhile, Scottish officials have begun to raise concerns about cross-border importation of the virus with their Whitehall counterparts over recent days, The Daily Telegraph understands.
Ms Sturgeon said that prevalence of the virus is “several times lower” in Scotland than it is across the UK and said the potential for importing cases had given her “pause for thought” when deciding whether to enter stage three of easing lockdown.
She added: “The balanced decision we announced on air bridges was essential for us to conclude, at this stage, that we are managing that risk in an effective and proportionate manner.
“However, it is essential that we keep this risk under close review. And, to be clear, this must cover the possibility of importation from other parts of the UK, as well as from overseas.”
The First Minister has insisted any decision to impose quarantine restrictions on travellers from England would be taken strictly for public health reasons, and has pointed to countries such as the United States where restrictions in internal travel has been imposed.
However, any suggestion of imposing travel restrictions within the UK would be seen as a provocation by unionists. Boris Johnson has described the suggestion as “absolutely astonishing and shameful”.
Reacting to Ms Sturgeon’s latest comments, Maurice Golden, economy spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the First Minister had given “the biggest hint yet” that she was “prepared to close the Scottish border to those travelling to or from the rest of the UK".
He added: “The First Minister is perfectly aware of what that would mean in practice, and the effect it would have on our economy.
“Not only that, this language is exactly the kind of encouragement that spurred on the hate-filled border protests last weekend.
“It appears that the First Minister’s priorities lie more with her hardcore nationalist base than the jobs of ordinary Scots.”
In other changes to lockdown, young people aged 11 or under will no longer have to physically distance from today, nor will all couples who do not live together. Live outdoor events and amateur contact sports could resume from next month, although no firm date has been given.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We should all savour our first indoor meetings and meals with friends, our first pint in a pub or catch-up over coffee. I know that many of us are looking forward to our first non-amateur haircut in many months. There will be other milestones and reunions that we will enjoy during the next few weeks.
"They have all been hard earned by each and every one of us. However, I have a duty to be crystal clear with the country that this is also a time of real danger. Next week represents the most substantial easing of lockdown so far, and we know that meeting people indoors poses far greater risks than going to a park or to someone’s garden.”
The announcement on lockdown easing was broadly welcomed by businesses, although retailers remain nervous about face coverings becoming mandatory.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Confirmation by the First Minister that the country can now return to more normality will be very much welcomed by all, particularly businesses that are due to reopen and begin to build up their trade.
“Our business communities across Scotland are eager and ready to get back to work in order to breathe life back into our economy and protect the livelihoods it supports. Businesses have invested heavily to comply with all health and safety regulations and government guidance. We are firmly open for business and would ask everyone to come out and support your local businesses.
“The next great challenge is now determining if consumer demand can be stimulated and maintained as government support measures taper off in the next few months.’’