The First Minister laid out a “cautious route map” to end lockdown, some 20 weeks after she first announced a 16-day “circuit breaker” to get virus numbers down, which was later followed by a return to a complete lockdown just after New Year.
Addressing MSPs in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon said the return of the youngest pupils to schools and children to nurseries this week had begun the easing of restrictions and by March 15, more primary and secondary youngsters could be back in classrooms while care home visiting constraints will be relaxed.
However, it will only be from April 5 the current “stay at home” rule will be lifted, all pupils will be due back in school, and click and collect services could reopen as well as places of worship.
Lockdown would finally end in the last week of April – just a week before the Scottish Parliament elections are due to be held – with a return then to local authority level restrictions.
Ms Sturgeon stressed that even these measures would only take place if people continued to “suppress the virus” and the vaccination programme continued to prove to be successful.
As a result, the announcement was greeted with dismay by businesses and the hospitality sector.
Scottish Conservative’s Holyrood group leader Ruth Davidson said the route map was instead a “holding document” that failed to “give hope” to Scots who were desperate to know when life “might get back to normality”.
“People didn’t tune in today expecting to be told to tune in again in three weeks’ time,” Ms Davidson said. She said the route map gave no indication on what would happen after April 26, when NHS services would get back up to speed, and when weddings would resume and social distancing end.
Ms Davidson said: “This statement fell short of public expectations. We didn’t get information about when measures like social distancing will end and when we will be able to do something as basic as give a loved one a hug.
“Everyone understands that we might not be able to give people absolute certainty, but they were at least expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope. Nothing has been published about what happens after the 26th of April. This isn’t a route map out of Covid, it is holding document.”
The announcement was also criticised by Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, who said Scottish businesses were now at a disadvantage compared to those in England and called for a marketing campaign.
"With no international tourism likely for some time, there is greater dependency on Scotland’s ability to attract tourism from within the UK and we need to provide a degree of reassurance that their bookings can be accommodated,” he said. “Our tourism industry is not able to accept bookings with confidence – not all will wait for our sector to gradually re-open to book.
"We’ve seen the huge spike in bookings from England for foreign travel over the last 24 hours and there is a great fear that Scotland’s tourism industry will lose out in what could have been a buoyant summer season.
“Given that Scotland will now be opening behind England, there is an even greater need for a marketing campaign to boost late summer and autumn bookings and ensure that Scotland’s tourism industry isn’t disadvantaged in the long term.”
Scottish Hospitality Group spokesperson Stephen Montgomery also said the Government seemed “hell-bent on following a precautionary approach that’s not backed up by evidence”.
He said when the new levels system came into place hospitality firms in levels two and three must be allowed to trade to at least 10pm. “It’s extremely frustrating for operators in Scotland to be looking at their counterparts in England who are finally able to start preparing for a return to normality with greater certainty,” he said.
"And if the Government’s plan is to kick proper decisions down the road because of the election, then that is unacceptable to everyone in our sector.”
Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), said a late spring reopening would “sadly be too late for many and for those who do survive there remain serious challenges ahead”.
He said: “Pubs, bars and restaurants have been unable to open since before Christmas – under significant Covid constraints – and large swathes of 2020 were lost to lockdown closures or severely limited trading conditions.
“While it is encouraging that our sector can hopefully reopen from the end of April, we are concerned that a return to the previous tiered system will lead many operators to decide that such restrictive reopening conditions are simply not worth the time, effort and money involved."
Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses’ Scotland policy chair, said a “firmer timetable” would have been preferable. He said the pledge by Ms Sturgeon to review the speed of the route map every three weeks meant too long a gap between easing restrictions.
A spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale said the announcement left “lots of uncertainty” and the beer and pubs industry needed to be treated “fairly compared to other industries like non-essential retail”.
Meanwhile, parents campaign group UsForThem accused the Government of leaving secondary pupils “on the scrapheap” as their counterparts in England will go back to school on March 8.
Spokeswoman Jo Bisset said: “Despite all the warnings and the evidence about harm being caused to young people through schools being closed, still the First Minister won’t listen.
“Her government is very deliberately choosing a course of action that will wreck their education and obliterate the formative years of their lives. Parents have been patient to this point, but those with children above primary school will be utterly furious at this."
There were also questions raised about Ms Sturgeon’s announcement that all pupils are expected to be back at school from April 5, which is when schools will be closed for Easter holidays. However Education Secretary John Swinney later tweeted there were no plans to change the holidays, so it will be April 19 before all children return to the classrooms.
However Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said the union continued to believe “a blended model, with about half of pupils in class at any one time, would provide a more suitable basis for the return”.
He said: “With rates of infection in the community still a cause for concern, and the fact of increased aerosol transmission of the new variant, reducing numbers in classrooms is the safest approach to minimising risk.
"The evidence reported over the weekend about the role of children in transmission should be examined by the Scottish Government and not simply dismissed. Improving ventilation is critical and providing school staff with medical grade masks would help reduce any potential spread of the virus.”
In Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon admitted that she was taking a “cautious approach”, but that it was “absolutely essential to control the virus and protect health”.
“I think anybody who stands here right now and says they can tell you three, four, five months from now with any certainty that all restrictions, including social distancing, can be lifted, is not doing that on the basis of any objective evidence,” she said.
"We can all be much more hopeful today than we have been able to be throughout the pandemic, not just because lockdown is suppressing the virus, but that we have an alternative to suppressing it over the long term and that’s vaccination. So we think by the time we get to April we can start to open up the economy and between now and April we can open up in a phased way some aspects of the current restrictions in place.
"We have to balance that with the reality there’s still uncertainty about the impact of vaccination on transmission, though the emerging evidence is positive, and we need to make sure we’re not opening up while the virus is simmering at a level too high to safely do that.
“The reality is any dates we give at this stage are arbitrary. It’s like putting your finger in the wind and coming up with a date that's not firmly based in the evidence and that’s the balance we’re trying to strike. We can be hopeful and optimistic, but patient and sensible as well. The last thing I want to be doing is going backwards.”
Ms Sturgeon said the Government would continue to support businesses through the strategic framework business fund until at least the end of June and when moving into levels, “businesses which are allowed to reopen will continue to receive payments from the fund for at least the next four weeks, as they transition back to trading more normally”.
“We are also considering some form of tapered support for businesses that may still face trading restrictions and reduced demand, even as they are allowed to re-open,” she said.
Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie said it was vital that a revised testing strategy “that includes mass community testing where appropriate” was unveiled by the Government.
She pressed Ms Sturgeon on whether the “ultimate goal” was suppression or elimination of the virus.
Ms Sturgeon said there was an intention to publish a revised testing strategy. She said: “The point is you’ve got to try for as close to elimination as possible to keep the virus as low as possible, so even if you don’t achieve no Covid, the very act of trying keeps it at levels that are safer to open up.”
The First Minister said a better comparison for dealing with Covid was with measles rather than flu, where vaccination kept it suppressed and outbreaks could be dealt with easily.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said there had been “many false dawns of care home visiting” and he hoped “this is not another one and that families, separated for months, can be safely together again”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Nobody wants it to be a false dawn. That’s why we’ve got to do this in a steady, but sustainable way.”
Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, welcomed the news that church buildings could be open for Easter.
He said: “Christians are Easter people and we live with hope in all circumstances – hope that has sustained us through this last year.
“The announcement in the Scottish Parliament today is a good beginning to a return to normality and we look forward to further progress in the easing of restrictions.”