SCOTLAND can "definitely" go ahead with plans to lift the next phase of Covid restrictions on July 19 despite soaring case numbers, an expert in infectious diseases has said.

Christine Tait-Burkard, an assistant professor of zoonotic viruses at Edinburgh University, said she was also "quite a bit happier" with the Scottish Government's goal of delaying the end to social distancing until August - around three weeks later than England.

It comes as the UK Government's new health secretary, Sajid Javid, said there were "compelling" arguments for ending all restrictions, including mandatory facemasks, due to the harms caused by long-term lockdowns, but admitted that coronavirus cases are "going to rise significantly" as a result.

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Scotland has experienced a string of record-breaking daily case numbers over the past week, including over 4000 on Thursday, and currently has the highest Covid rates in the UK with an estimated one in 150 people infected compared to one in 260 in England.

Earlier this week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the higher prevalence of infections north of the Border could be due to the highly-transmissible Delta variant having "seeded" into Scotland initially through Glasgow, its most populous city, as well as lower antibody levels in the population because virus rates had tended to be lower than other parts of the UK previously in the pandemic.

Speaking on the BBC Sunday Show, however, Prof Tait-Burkard, said she did not believe the current situation should stall plans to move the whole of Scotland into Level Zero from July 19.

She said: "Vaccination is underway and we're looking at close to 100% [uptake in adults] by July 19 with the first jab, and we already know that most of the severe disease risk gets reduced by that significantly.

"So I think we can definitely go through the next step on the 19th of July despite the numbers.

"That sounds absolutely mad, but hospitalisation numbers still look encouraging and the vaccination programme still looks encouraging - but I'm quite a bit happier with the Scottish approach to eventually releasing everything in August only."

Level Zero is expected to mean an end to physical distancing outdoors in Scotland, and would allow larger groups to meet indoors in hospitality venues and private homes.

This is scheduled to be followed once vaccination coverage is higher by 'beyond zero' on August 9, when venues such as pubs and restaurants may be allowed to return to full capacity indoors, without distancing, although it is likely that advice on wearing face coverings will remain in place for shops and public transport and it is unclear whether nightclubs will reopen at this stage.

In England, nightclubs are due to reopen from July 19, with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings replaced by "personal responsibility".

Downing Street is also considering proposals to allow fully-vaccinated people to avoid self-isolation if they come into contact with an infected person, with quarantine replaced by advice to test themselves for the virus regularly instead.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, health secretary Mr Javid said the government had to be honest with people about the fact that "we cannot eliminate Covid".

He added: "We also need to be clear that cases are going to rise significantly. I know many people will be cautious about the easing of restrictions - that's completely understandable.

"But no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view.

"We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it - just as we already do with flu."

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He added that the decision was based on balancing Covid and non-Covid harms.

Mr Javid said: "The economic arguments for opening up are well known, but for me, the health arguments are equally compelling.

"Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people's mental health."

In Scotland, nearly 24,000 Covid cases were recorded in the seven days to June 2 - the highest ever weekly toll.

The number of people in hospital with Covid rose from 114 to 285 between June 2 and July 2, though intensive care cases have remained much lower - climbing from 10 to 19 over the same period.

The number of people dying with confirmed Covid in Scotland has risen from 10 between May 2 and June 2, to 56 in the month to July 2.

Amid the spiralling case numbers, Test and Protect contact tracers in Scotland are now prioritising cases where there is a "high risk" of transmission, with texts used instead where cases are deemed low risk.

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Prof Tait-Burkard said her own conversations with Public Health Scotland colleagues suggest that people are becoming "less willing to comply" with requests to self-isolate.

She said: "We see people are not as willing to pick up the phone, they're not as willing to provide information, and they're not as willing to isolate, especially when they have been double jabbed and have for instance holiday plans for this summer.

"So at this moment I think that Test and Protect is still an important part but we still also have to focus on the other aspects of both vaccination but also testing at larger, high-risk events."

She added that despite the stresses on the system, testing appeared to be picking up a higher proportion of cases - around 50% now compared to 22% in January - based on the Office for National Statistics surveillance estimates for how many infections are genuinely present in the community at any one time.