THE daily average for new coronavirus infections in Scotland has risen for the first time since early January, just days before the routemap out of lockdown is due to be unveiled.

The figures, from Public Health Scotland, come after Nicola Sturgeon warned that the position remained "very fragile", with signs that a decline in infections was slowing.

Speaking on Tuesday, the First Minister said: "We think we are seeing some signs that cases might be falling more slowly now than they were a few weeks ago.

"A key factor here is likely to be that the new, more infectious, variant of the virus is accounting for an increasing proportion of all new cases - as of now, it is responsible for more than 80 per cent of new cases being identified."

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Now, PHS data for the seven-day average in cases shows that it rose by 2.6%, from 791.9 per day on February 15 to 812.3 on February 16.

Although small - and potentially a blip - it is the first increase in the measure since January 8.

HeraldScotland: The upturn in the 7-day average is small, but follows warnings from Nicola Sturgeon that the decline in cases was slowingThe upturn in the 7-day average is small, but follows warnings from Nicola Sturgeon that the decline in cases was slowing

Professor Linda Bauld, chair of public health for Edinburgh University's Usher Institute, said it was possible that the figure was skewed by a large outbreak at HMP Kilmarnock, where more than 260 inmates and prison staff have tested positive, as well as by a spike in testing on Wednesday.

"The number of cases is a direct result of testing," said Prof Bauld.

"We did a lot of testing on Wednesday - we did 24,343 tests, which is the most tests we've done since the beginning of February."

The test positivity rate - an important gauge for whether testing is keeping pace with infection rates - is continuing to fall, although more slowly than in early February.

Other factors such as lockdown fatigue and vaccine optimism could also be influencing behaviour, said Prof Bauld.

She said: "I think the broad point is we would have wished to see more progress by now.

"Things are reducing at a very slow rate, and that means the easing up will be occurring very slowly.

"There is some evidence, from previous vaccination programmes like flu, for people easing up after they have a vaccination - giving people a hug and so on - but given the group that have been vaccinated I think that's very unlikely to have had any impact on what's happening.

"However, the point about people feeling more optimistic that there's a vaccine and easing up behaviourally, there may well be something in that.

"I think the main message is that unless things speed up, it's going to be a long road in terms of easing."

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The Scottish Government is set to unveil its lockdown exit plan next week, although the First Minister has stressed that it will be driven by "data not dates".

Schools will reopen on Monday to pupils in Primaries 1-3 and pre-schoolers, with the effect of this on virus rates expected to be evaluated before any other restrictions are lifted.

Random sampling by the Office for National Statistics suggests that Scotland's coronavirus rate is currently the lowest in the UK, with an estimated one in 180 people infected compared to one in every 115 in England, one in 125 in Wales, and one n 105 in Northern Ireland .

HeraldScotland: The ONS infection survey is based on random sampling of people in the community, with and without symptoms, and indicates that infection rates are lowest in ScotlandThe ONS infection survey is based on random sampling of people in the community, with and without symptoms, and indicates that infection rates are lowest in Scotland

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said this was a "further indication that lockdown restrictions are having the desired effect", as he welcomed the reopening of schools for the first time since December as "an important milestone".

Lateral flow home-testing kits will be available, on a voluntary basis, twice a week for school staff and students, said Mr Swinney, who is also Education Secretary.

He added that the "key risk" was not transmission of the virus within schools, but that opening them up again could lead to more contact between adults.

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Mr Swinney told parents they should continue to work from home where possible.

"Don't use this return as an opportunity to meet up with other parents or friends," he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will also outline England's routemap out of lockdown on Monday, amid reports that pubs and restaurants may not fully reopen before July.

HeraldScotland: Official data based on people presenting for Covid tests due to symptoms or picked up during community mass testing suggests that Scotland's virus rates are the second lowest, after WalesOfficial data based on people presenting for Covid tests due to symptoms or picked up during community mass testing suggests that Scotland's virus rates are the second lowest, after Wales

Northern Ireland has extended its lockdown until April 1, while Wales has announced "very modest changes" from today which will permit four people from two different households to exercise together outdoors

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said the government will also consider allowing the tourism industry to partially reopen in time for Easter, potentially with travel restrictions banning entry to visitors from areas with high Covid prevalence.