PARTS of Scotland could move straight into Level Two restrictions at the end of April if Covid rates are low enough, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister said moving “further and faster” out of lockdown will depend on how the new Kent variant behaves as restrictions are eased, and whether vaccines are preventing new cases as well as deaths and serious illness.

The Government will be looking “particularly closely” at the impact of schools returning, she added.

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“The virus we are living with right now is different from the virus we were living with when we came out of lockdown last summer,” said Ms Sturgeon.

“More than 80 per cent – 85% – of all cases now are of the new variant. It transmits much more quickly.

"We don’t know, because we haven’t lived with this virus without restrictions up until now, just exactly what’s going to happen when we start to lift those restrictions.

“A couple of weeks from now we might have much greater confidence that we can live with this new variant and be sure what we can afford to do.”

The current timetable for Scotland’s exit from lockdown indicates that pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms, and hairdressers, should begin reopening from April 26 as the country reverts to Level Three.

Previously, this meant cafes, pubs and restaurants were subject to a 6pm curfew and banned from serving alcohol, with cinemas remaining closed, and travel restrictions requiring people to remain in their local authority area.

However, Ms Sturgeon said the conditions set for each tier may be revised, and signalled a potential acceleration into Level Two earlier.

Previously, this allowed licensed premises to serve alcohol indoors with a main meal up until 8pm, and outdoors until 10.30pm.

Ms Sturgeon said further clarity on reopening plans will be given during March, but that businesses including hospitality and non-essential retail “should plan” to reopen from April 26.

HeraldScotland: Hairdressers would be allowed to reopen after April 26, under the current timetableHairdressers would be allowed to reopen after April 26, under the current timetable

She said: “We are looking at the contents of the levels to see whether they could be recast to have the same effect on the suppression of the virus but make life easier for businesses. We will talk to sectors about that.

“But it may be by the time we get to April 26 that we have greater confidence in where we are in the fight against the virus, that some parts of the country can go straight to Level Two.

“And hopefully we might see the whole country go to Level Two in the not too distant future after April 26.”

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Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, stressed that the 94-page lockdown exit plan “doesn’t say that the travel restrictions will stay in place as they were before”, adding that levels might be applied to a group of local authorities, a health board area, or a region – potentially allowing wider domestic travel at first.

Ms Sturgeon said restrictions on international travel "are more likely to be in place for longer" to avoid importing new mutant strains which risk "tipping ourselves into a third wave".

She added: "The dread that I would have right now is that there's a new variant that comes into Scotland, into the UK, and starts to circulate widely before we manage to pick it up and it's got the ability to undermine the effectiveness of the vaccine."

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the First Minister was “rattled by the backlash” following criticism that Scotland’s exit plan was too slow.

He said: “She’s now suggesting the loosening of restrictions to Level Two might happen earlier and, in another masterclass of political spin, trying to rewrite history and claim that was the plan all along.”

However, Liam McArthur, LibDem MSP for Orkney – which has reported just eight cases this month – said it offered islanders “some much-needed hope that things could start returning to normal soon”.

HeraldScotland: The decline in coronavirus cases has levelled off since around February 13 (orange line shows 7-day average) although test positivity is under the 5% WHO benchmarkThe decline in coronavirus cases has levelled off since around February 13 (orange line shows 7-day average) although test positivity is under the 5% WHO benchmark

The latest National Records of Scotland data shows that deaths from Covid among care home residents, who were prioritised for vaccination, have fallen 69% since mid-January and by 47% among over 85s, compared to 21% for those aged 74 or younger.

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The figures, up to February 21, actually show a week-on-week increase in deaths – from 36 to 43 – among people aged 15 to 64.

This follows a levelling off in intensive care admissions, which had previously been falling, in late January. The median age of Covid ICU patients in Scotland is 61.

HeraldScotland: ICU admissions for Covid stopped falling on January 28 and have levelled off since thenICU admissions for Covid stopped falling on January 28 and have levelled off since then

The average number of new cases each day has also plateaued since mid-February, although the test positivity rate is now below the World Health Organisation’s 5% threshold, suggesting that the epidemic is under control.