The First Minister revealed the majority of the country would move to level two restrictions on Monday in a major leap forward in Scotland’s journey out of Covid lockdown, allowing more people to meet up indoors without social distancing.
The move to a lower level of restrictions will mean up to six people from three households can get together indoors in their homes or outside in their gardens, while the same number can meet in a pub or restaurant, although distancing will still be in place.
In her first Covid briefing since the Scottish Parliament elections, Ms Sturgeon said she felt “emotional” at finally being able to remove the physical distancing measures for families and friends.
She also announced that hospitality restrictions would be eased, allowing for alcohol to be served in pubs and restaurants until 10:30pm.
The move was welcomed by the hospitality industry, although there was disappointment that physical distancing measures were still set to remain.
A further £40 million is also to be made available to help the cultural sector cope with the impact of the pandemic, she said, after refusing to relax plans to impose two metre social distancing on arts venues – despite warnings they would make live events financially unviable.
On international travel, Ms Sturgeon also said the government would introduce a traffic light system, based on the same process used by the UK Government, which will allow Scots to travel to 12 countries, including Australia and Portugal, with no need to quarantine on their return.
However, while making the announcement on general restrictions easing, she said the local authority area of Moray looked “highly probable” to remain in level three, with new travel restrictions imposed as a result of widespread community-transmitted coronavirus, although a final decision will be made later in the week.
Scotland’s islands though will move faster than the mainland, switching straight to level one on Monday following a consistently low transmission rate and “very good vaccination coverage”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “From Monday six people from up to three households will be able to meet indoors in each other’s houses.
“It’s a cautious change, but a hugely important one. It’s almost eight months now since most of us have been able to meet in each other’s homes and it’s been longer than that for those of us living in Glasgow and Lanarkshire.
“I know how much everyone has been looking forward to being able to do this again. It’s one of the simple pleasures of life that I suspect and hope that none of us will ever take for granted again.”
She said the government also considered it was possible to “go further” and so from Monday “if you’re meeting friends and family, indoors or in a garden, our guidance will say that it’s no longer necessary to maintain physical distance”.
Ms Sturgeon added: "Which means, and I feel emotional saying this, that as long as you stay within permitted limits, you can hug your loved ones again.”
However, she still urged caution and said while she didn’t want to “pour cold water” on the good news, “for the next three weeks the easing of guidance on physical distancing will apply to permitted gatherings in our own homes and gardens only”.
"However, over that period we will conduct a wider review on the need for physical distancing in public indoor places and we will set out the conclusions of that at the next review point,” she said.
"Please use careful judgement. Close physical contact does still carry risk. If you have loved ones who are vulnerable, please still be careful and limit the overall number of people with whom you’re choosing to have close physical contact.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “As we progress further into the next phases of the pandemic and easing restrictions, prescriptive rules will give way to greater personal judgement. That can and will be difficult as we’ve been used to following rules in the past year, so please continue to be cautious.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross welcomed the move to lift physical restrictions and said it would bring “so much relief and joy to people”.
He said: “Like many others, I cannot wait to see and hug my friends and family after not being able to do so for so long. The extraordinary success of the vaccination scheme across Scotland and the UK has made this easing of restrictions possible and will help us take another step back towards normality.
“We have repeatedly called on the SNP Government to open up more quickly to support businesses and give people more hope. It is welcome the First Minister’s latest announcement reflected the positive public health data.
“However, there is of course a worrying situation in my own area of Moray and understandable disappointment we will likely be remaining under level three restrictions beyond Monday. Everyone in the area must continue to follow the rules and get tested wherever possible.
“That can help reduce the spread of the virus and hopefully ensure Moray can move to level two restrictions in the not-too-distant future.”
NHS Grampian identified a surge in cases in Moray starting in April and there has been a smaller increase in hospital admissions. A number of measures have already been put in place to combat the surge, including increased testing and accelerating vaccination offers to those aged 19 to 39.
Scotland's chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, said the case rate in Moray was around 94 per 100,000, with the outbreak thought to consist of 21 significant networks.
The towns of Elgin and Keith are particular hotspots, he said, but there does not appear to be a spread into neighbouring local authorities such as the Highlands and Aberdeenshire.
Genome sequencing indicates the Moray outbreak consists of the B117 strain of Covid-19 – the variant that first emerged in Kent and is now dominant in the UK. Infections have turned up in a number settings, including schools, workplaces and particularly large shops.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Public health experts consider that Moray is currently experiencing widespread community transmission of the virus.
"It is therefore highly probably, though a final decision will be taken at the end of this week, that Moray will remain in level three for a further period, though I hope it will be a relatively short one.
“This will mean that travel in and out of Moray will be limited to permitted purposes only. The situation in Moray, together with the emergence of new variants globally, should be a sharp reminder to all of us that the virus remains a real threat.”
Responding to the announcement on restrictions, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the news would “bring hope and optimism across Scotland” and was a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“I, like so many across the country, can’t wait to hug my granny,” he said.
“And there is some good news in this announcement for businesses. But we must still recognise the economic and jobs crisis we face.
“That will not end when the restrictions do and, as Scottish Labour has called for, we need to see a much more ambitious scheme in place to support jobs, businesses and communities across Scotland.
“Our national recovery must now be the singular focus of the Parliament.”