Nicola Sturgeon optimistic Scotland will move to level 0 on July 19 despite highest rate of Covid in Europe

Nicola Sturgeon remains optimistic the planned easing of restrictions in July will not be delayed amid a surge in cases that has seen Scotland reach the highest rate of Covid-19 in Europe.

Some 3,823 new cases were reported in the 24 hours to Friday, following a record-breaking 4,234 the day before.

The number of people in hospital with the virus has risen to 285, and four new deaths have been reported within 28 days of a positive test.

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Scotland now has the highest rate of the virus per population in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), with Tayside singled out as the European region with the highest incidence.

Some experts have called for the planned move to level zero on July 19 to be delayed.

Edinburgh University’s Linda Bauld said Scotland should not “rush ahead” to ease restrictions, and virologist Dr Eleanor Gaunt said the nation should “press pause” on easing earlier this week.

Scottish Labour has highlighted pressures on Scotland’s Test and Protect system, arguing that contact tracing must be improved for restrictions to be eased.

Ms Sturgeon said she was hopeful there would be no delay as the planned easing was linked to vaccination milestones, not case numbers.

In response to Prof Bauld’s comments, Ms Sturgeon told a Covid-19 briefing on Friday: “Remember the dates we’ve set for July 19 and August 9 are deliberately not tied to particular rates of infection, they are tied to vaccination milestones.

“Therefore I still very much hope to be in a position to meet those dates.

“I’m not going to confirm that today because that would take me out of the very careful process we go through before we get to that stage.”

Prof Bauld told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland on Friday that she would advise a delay to the restrictions easing, but not the introduction of a further lockdown.

“South Africa is in its third wave and third lockdown, and so is Santiago in Chile, so it’s not to say that governments will not use these tools,” she said.

“The problem is the promise to the people of Scotland and across the UK has been that vaccines were the route out of this, in partnership with public health measures … if it was me making the decisions I would be saying we really shouldn't be rushing ahead to open up further soon, because I think the situation at the moment is really fragile, and we need to monitor that and then deliver more second doses,” she said.

Reimposing restrictions “will only be used as a last resort”, she said.

Ms Sturgeon’s comments come after health boards warned of rising pressure on services this week.

NHS Highland said it was facing “extreme system pressure” amid high demand for services and staff absences due to Covid-19 illness or self-isolation.

NHS Tayside saw hospital Covid cases almost double between Wednesday and Thursday, from 20 to 36.

Officials in NHS Grampian have warned contact tracers are struggling to cope under increased workload and were not able to trace all positive contacts.

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of the British Medical Association Scotland, has called for a review of self isolation requirements for healthcare staff, in light of rising levels of absences.

Opposition parties have called for improvements to Test and Protect systems, with Labour calling the situation a “shambles”, and the Liberal Democrats warning the Scottish Government has taken its “eye off the ball”.

But Ms Sturgeon said Test and Protect was “coping well” and is meeting WHO targets.

Asked if she is concerned about Scotland’s position with the highest rate of Covid in Europe, Ms Sturgeon said she was “not complacent”.

While the country was “behind and below” the rest of the UK in terms of infections during the first and second waves, it is now ahead, she said.

Ms Sturgeon said this may be due to lower levels of population immunity in Scotland, as fewer people were infected previously.

Other countries in Europe are now watching the situation in Scotland to see how it develops, she said.

“We are one of the first countries that is facing a significant spike in cases as we have quite substantial levels of vaccination,” she said.

“At previous stages in this pandemic we’ve looked at other countries like Spain or France and said we were maybe about four weeks behind them and we need to look at what happens there.

“There are many countries right now looking at Scotland to see what happens here.”

Ms Sturgeon said she was also not complacent about the consequences of high case numbers which fall outside hospitalisation and death, such as long Covid and the potential development of variants which are more resistant to vaccines.

New Office for National Statistics figures published on Thursday revealed more than 80,000 people in Scotland may be living with Long Covid, with almost 35,000 saying they have experienced symptoms for at least a year.

“People who never have to get as far as hospital may still suffer health consequences from this virus, and we should never be complacent about human health,” Ms Sturgeon said.

“Even though the number of people dying is much lower, one person dying from this virus is a tragedy.

“The world knows one of the big risks we face is around new variants. I am not complacent about this, but I also recognise, and clinical advice underlines this, in terms of managing it the vaccine does change things.

“We can’t close our mind to that because we know restrictions have other consequences and can also cause illness.”

The vaccination programme continues to pave the way towards an easing of restrictions, Ms Sturgeon said, announcing on Friday that half of Scottish adults have been given two doses.

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