NICOLA Sturgeon warned it is a "time of real danger" and cautioned Scots that they "messed with the virus at their peril" as she announced the most significant measures to lift the country's lockdown.

The First Minister today unveiled the relaxation of rules allowing people to mix indoors and confirming plans for bars, restaurants, hairdressers and shopping centres to reopen.

She said it is "undoubtedly a time for cautious hope and optimism", as she hailed progress made so far in tackling Covid-19 in Scotland.

But with more services reopening and people now permitted to gather with other households indoors, she stressed it is also a time of "real danger" - and she urged the public to keep following the rules on physical distancing, hand washing and wearing face coverings.

"This is undoubtedly a time for cautious hope and optimism. There is no doubt that Scotland, through our collective efforts, has made great progress in tackling Covid," she said.

"We should all savour our first indoor meetings and meals with friends, our first pint in a pub or catch-up over coffee. I know that many of us are looking forward to our first non-amateur haircut in many months. There will be other milestones and reunions that we will enjoy during the next few weeks. They have all been hard earned by each and every one of us.

"However, I have a duty to be crystal clear with the country that this is also a time of real danger. Next week represents the most substantial easing of lockdown so far, and we know that meeting people indoors poses far greater risks than going to a park or to someone’s garden.

"We see signs of resurgence in many countries across the world and we must all be aware of that in everything that we do. We must remember that Covid, although at very low levels in Scotland, is still out there. Everything that we learn about this still new virus—its infectiousness, ability to kill and potential to do long-term damage to health—should warn us that we mess with it at our peril. Therefore, perhaps more than ever, now is a time for great caution."

As she confirmed a move to phase three of the four-phase easing of lockdown, Sturgeon told MSPs there were no new deaths from coronavirus in the last 24 hours and the R number infection rate has been between 0.6 and 0.8 for "most of the last month".

The most recent estimate is that 1,000 people in Scotland are infectious, she said, and the "prevalence of the virus in Scotland is at this stage several times lower than it is across the UK as a whole".

The changes mean that from Monday, children can enjoy contact sports and shopping centres can fully reopen.

On Wednesday July 15, hairdressers, indoor pubs and restaurants can all restart business, and museums and galleries can open their doors once again. On the same day, places of worship can reopen for communal prayer, congregational services and contemplation - but with restrictions on numbers, singing and chanting.

From tomorrow, people in one household can meet up to two others at a time indoors, with up to eight people in total permitted, and overnight stays are allowed.

Children aged 11 and under will no longer have to socially distance from other youngsters or adults indoors or out - but older children and adults must continue to keep apart. Schools will reopen full time in August so long as the virus remains suppressed.

In response, Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw referenced Chancellor Rishi Sunak's mini-Budget aimed at boosting the economy as he called on the Scottish Government to be more ambitious.

The First Minister welcomed the Chancellor's latest measures "as far as they go".

She added: "Right now Scotland is being successful in tackling and suppressing this virus - perhaps more than is the case elsewhere in the UK."

Businesses and the cultural sector have welcomed news that restrictions are easing further.

Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief executive Liz Cameron said the latest changes will be "very much welcomed by all, particularly businesses that are due to reopen and begin to build up their trade".

A joint statement from Scotland's museums and galleries, including the V&A Dundee and Glasgow Life, said the sector "warmly welcomes" confirmation such premises can reopen from July 15 with safety measures and physical distancing rules in place.