SCOTLAND will move into Level Zero "with modifications" on Monday as Nicola Sturgeon insisted the Government is not "slamming on the brakes".

The First Minister confirmed that soft play centres will be allowed to open across Scotland - something currently banned in most areas of the Central Belt which are still under Level Two restrictions - with increased numbers allowed to meet up indoors.

From Monday, up to eight people from four households can gather inside a private home, with up to 10 people from four households allowed to sit together in a pub or restaurant.

Unlike in Level Two areas, under Level Zero there will also be no requirement for customers to pre-book a two-hour slot for pubs and restaurants, but customers will still be expected to wear face coverings when they are not seated and to provide contact details for Test and Protect. 

Larger events will also be permitted with limited attendance levels, capped at 2000 seated and 1000 standing outdoors, and 400 indoors.

However, physical distancing requirements outdoors, which had be due to end, will remain in place for at least a further three weeks.

This means that a maximum of 15 people from 15 households can gather together outdoors without having to socially distance within that group, but different groups will have to distance one metre from one another.

This will impact on hospitality venues with outdoor tables and seating, such as beer gardens, who had hoped to return to full capacity.

Pubs and restaurants will also be required to close at midnight in a change to the original plan which would have allowed them to adhere to potentially more lenient local licensing laws.

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Employers are also asked to continue supporting staff to work from home where possible, at least until August 9. 

The First Minister said it "remains our expectation" that Scotland will progress into the 'Beyond Zero' phase from August 9, but stressed that "basic mitigations" such as requirements to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport would continue "for some time to come". 

In swipe at the UK Government, which is scrapping all mandatory restrictions and mitigations from July 19 in England - including rules on physical distancing and face coverings - while encouraging the public to take "personal responsibility" for their own and others' safety, Ms Sturgeon said ministers should "say so" if they think certain measures are necessary.

She said: "On the issue of mandating mitigations like face masks, let me say this.

"It is my view that if government believes measures like this matter - and we do - we should say so, do what is necessary to ensure compliance, and take any resulting flak from those who disagree.

"We shouldn’t lift important restrictions to make our lives easier and then expect the public to take responsibility for doing the right thing anyway."

Ms Sturgeon said that "lifting all restrictions and mitigations right now would put all of us at greater risk" and impose "shielding by default" on those who are most clinically vulnerable. 

It comes as the latest daily data shows further signs that the recent surge in infections has slowed, with 18,718 cases reported in the past seven days - down from a peak of 24,181 in the week ending July 4. 

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However, Ms Sturgeon noted that "not all cases are confirmed by testing" and that prevalence would continue to be monitored in other ways, such as waste water sampling. 

The most recent community surveillance by the Office for National Statistics indicated that around one in 100 people in Scotland were infected with the coronavirus in the week ending July 3, the highest rate in the UK.

The impact of the recent infections spike is still feeding through into hospitals where the number of Covid patients has reached 506 including 41 in intensive care, compared to 215 and 20 respectively two weeks ago. 

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"Hopefully, with new cases starting to fall, we will also see hospital admissions fall over the next few weeks," said Ms Sturgeon.

"But at the moment, the pressure on the NHS is of concern.

"First and foremost, it means a significant number of people suffering illness. It also means more pressure on a workforce that has already given so much.

"And it holds back NHS recovery. Every hospital bed occupied by a Covid patient is one less available to tackle the backlog of non Covid care."

However, the First Minister also confirmed plans to cut back on "blanket" requirements to self-isolate. 

From Monday, people arriving in Scotland from amber list countries will no longer be required to quarantine as long as they are fully vaccinated and take a PCR test on the second day after arrival - although Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is continuing to "advise against all non-essential overseas travel". 

When Scotland moves 'Beyond Zero' - scheduled for August 9 - Ms Sturgeon said the Government also intends to "remove the blanket requirement for close contacts to self isolate". This will apply only to those who have been fully vaccinated with two weeks having passed since their second dose, and dependent upon them also returning a negative PCR test. 

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government's education advisory group has also been asked "to what extent and with what mitigations" the requirement to self-isolate can also be lifted in relation to school pupils who come into contact with a positive case. 

This had resulted in tens of thousands of children being sent home last term due to around 800 pupils testing positive.

"We will set out our conclusions well in advance of the new term," said Ms Sturgeon.