FOOTBALL fans will be able to return to full stadiums from next week amid signs the Omicron wave has “turned a corner” in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon said there was cause for “cautious optimism” as she confirmed an end to the 500-person cap on attendance at outdoor events from Monday.

However, business leaders said it was “incredibly disappointing” that restrictions on sectors such as hospitality will continue until at least January 24, with the First Minister also signalling a potential extension of vaccine passports to venues such as bars and restaurants once current rules requiring table service and physical distancing come to an end.

Ms Sturgeon said booster vaccines and “responsible action” by the public has had a “positive impact” on the virus spread, with cases now falling in all age groups except the over-85s and hospital admissions also slowing.

She said restrictions will be lifted in a “phased and careful way” from January 17, beginning with live outdoor events. The move will pave the way to the return of football matches and allow for Six Nations rugby at Murrayfield to be played in front of a full stadium.

However, organisers face stricter rules on vaccine passports. Ms Sturgeon said: “Our guidance will now stipulate that the organisers of large events of 1,000 or more people should check the certification status of at least 50 per cent of attendees, rather than the current 20%, or at least 1,000 people – whichever figure is higher.

“And, second, from Monday the requirement to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for the purposes of Covid certification will include having a booster if the second dose was more than four months ago.

“The NHS Scotland Covid status app for domestic use will be updated from Thursday so that its QR code includes evidence of booster vaccination.”

Admission will continue to be permitted for unvaccinated people with a recent negative lateral flow test.

Ms Sturgeon added that she is hopeful the Scottish Government will be able to lift other remaining restrictions – the requirement for table service in licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants; physical distancing in hospitality; and limits of 100 to 200 people at indoor events – from January 24.

However, the First Minister signalled that ministers are considering whether to extend Covid passports to venues such as bars, restaurants, and theatres as protective measures are lifted. She stressed that no decision has yet been taken and “will require careful judgment”.

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Until now, certification has only been required in Scotland for entry into large indoor and outdoor events, and to nightclubs and adult entertainment venues.

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said increased spot checks on Covid certificates would “impact on businesses who require additional staff and resources to implement these Covid requirements”.

She added that shop, restaurant and nightclub owners “will find it incredibly disappointing that there will be no immediate further lifting of restrictions on them”.

She said: “The Scottish Government need to support all businesses by removing legal restrictions that limit capacity, depress profitability and makes it difficult for businesses to survive and grow.”

It comes after business leaders in the north-east said Scotland’s tougher coronavirus rules had failed to make a “meaningful difference” to infection levels compared to England and were causing “enormous damage”.

Baseline measures – advice to limit socialising and to meet indoors in groups of no more than three households at once, as well as to work-from-home where possible and a requirement to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport – also remain in place.

The public should continue to test for Covid using lateral flow devices before socialising.

“We are not advising people to cut all social interaction,” said Ms Sturgeon.

“That simply isn’t practical, and has a serious impact on mental health and wellbeing. But trying to limit social interactions remains a sensible step at this stage.”

It comes as the latest data shows that there are 54 people in intensive care with Covid, up from 34 on New Year’s Day. The total number of people in hospital with Covid has climbed to 1,479, up from 897 on January 1, but Ms Sturgeon said there were “signs that the rate of increase may be starting to slow down”.

She said it was “very likely” the current situation “would have been even more challenging” without the measures adopted in recent weeks.

Government modellers projected that there would be around 50,000 Covid infections a day by early January, on a central estimate, but the true figure now looks to have been around 30,000 per day.

Ms Sturgeon said: “The situation in Scotland just now is undoubtedly serious but perhaps less so than it might have been, and there are also some signs that we may be starting to turn a corner.”

The First Minister said she is hopeful that Scotland is now “on a path from Covid being an epidemic to it becoming endemic”, with evidence that Omicron may be causing milder disease.

“We know that we cannot continually rely on restrictive measures to manage the virus,” she added.

The Scottish Government expects to publish its revised framework for “living with” Covid in the next few weeks.

A recent audit of Covid admissions suggests that 60% of patients in hospital with the virus are there “because of” their infections – down from around 68% previously. The remainder are patients treated for something else who happen to test positive, although this still creates logistical problems for hospitals which must isolate these individuals from non-Covid patients.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross credited the Scottish public’s “good sense” for turning the tide on Omicron

He added:  “People across Scotland got their booster. Took tests. Self-isolated when they needed to. They were cautious to protect their families’ health, and especially careful around the vulnerable.

 “That’s why the data is more positive. It’s not because of government restrictions.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the new framework “must include clear trigger points for any future restrictions, such as the rate of infections, hospitalisations and staff absences”.