Covid in Scotland: Shops reopen as toughest restrictions eased

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Non-essential shops across much of western Scotland - including Glasgow - are reopening for the first time in three weeks.

Retailers in the 11 council areas that had been under the country's toughest lockdown rules were able to welcome customers from 06:00.

But pubs, cafes and restaurants will have to remain closed until Saturday.

It comes as the areas move from level four to level three in the country's tiered system of Covid restrictions.

More than two million people had been subject to the level four restrictions since 20 November.

BBC Scotland business reporter Andrew Black said Glasgow's Buchanan Street was quite quiet apart from a few delivery vans shortly after 06:00, with many shops choosing not to reopen until an hour or two later.

Small queues started to form outside some stores later in the morning.

It was hoped that staggering opening times would limit the number of shoppers that would be flocking to the city centre at the same time.

Almost half of Scotland's non-essential stores are thought to have been shut by the level four rules, which industry bodies estimated had cost a combined £12.5m a day in lost revenues.

Three other council areas - Inverclyde, Falkirk and Angus - are moving down from level three to level two from 18:00 on Friday.

And both Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders will be downgraded from level two to level one.

There has been controversy over the decision to keep Edinburgh in level three despite the city having lower rates of the virus than some level two areas.

And opposition parties have described an additional £185m of Scottish government funding for businesses hit by Covid restrictions as "too little, too late".

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The centre of Glasgow was busy with shoppers as stores reopened

The level four restrictions were imposed in a bid to slow spiralling transmission rates across Glasgow and many of its surrounding areas.

All 11 areas have seen case numbers fall since then, but there have been warnings that they could increase again ahead of Christmas unless people continue to be careful and stick to the rules.

Strict travel restrictions will remain in place - so it will still be against the law for people outside of Glasgow to travel to the city to do their Christmas shopping, for example.

And shoppers have been urged to avoid peak hours and crowded shops, and to consider ordering online or by phone and then collecting in store to limit the amount of time they have to spend in shops.

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Barbers and hairdressers were among the businesses that had to close under the level four rules

Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) director David Lonsdale said the easing of restrictions would allow shops to "get back to work, get back to serving their customers and generate some of the revenues they will need to tide themselves over in the leaner months of the new year".

But he said greater clarity was needed from the government over rates relief for the coming year, and proposed a high street voucher scheme to boost consumer spending - similar to the one being developed in Northern Ireland.

The Scottish government has said it is considering the voucher idea.

Stuart Patrick, the chief executive of Glasgow Chambers of Commerce, warned the picture was still grim for many retailers, especially because of the travel restrictions.

He told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme: "Let's not get too excited - the stranglehold on business may have been loosened but their hands are still pretty firmly around the throats of businesses that employ about 30,000 people in Glasgow city centre."

What will be able to reopen?

The changes to the tiers do not come into force until 18:00, meaning hospitality businesses - which must close at that time in level three areas - will not be able to welcome back customers for food and non-alcoholic drinks until Saturday.

But retailers that had been closed due to the level four restrictions have been given special permission to open their doors from 06:00 on Friday.

The easing of the restrictions will also allow "close contact" businesses such as hairdressers, barbers and beauticians to reopen, as well as visitor attractions, outdoor contact sports and training for children.

Gyms can also open for individual exercise, but indoor group exercise activities are not allowed - although there is an exemption for under-18s.

However, soft play, funfairs, snooker and pool halls, indoor bowling alleys, casinos and bingo halls will remain closed and outdoor live events are banned.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the decline in cases across the level four areas could "very easily go into reverse" unless people continued to abide by the rules.

She said this was particularly true of the ban on visiting other people's houses - which remains in place across all of mainland Scotland.

The first minister added: "I cannot emphasise enough to you today that the very, very last thing we want to see is overcrowding in or around shops and shopping centres."

The deaths of a further 31 people who had tested positive for the virus were recorded across Scotland on Friday, bringing the total by that measure to 4,070.

But data released by the National Records of Scotland on Wednesday showed that a total of 5,868 people have died with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus since the pandemic began.

And a total of 104,306 people have now tested positive - 999 of whom are currently in hospital.

The 1,001 positive tests recorded in the last 24 hours is the highest daily figure since 26 November.

The latest data shows the R number - the average number of people infected by each person with Covid-19 - has fallen further below one, which experts say shows that the restrictions are having the desired effect.

The country has also started to vaccinate people with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after an initial batch of 65,000 doses arrived at the weekend - with more due next week.