Nicola Sturgeon said she hopes all of Scotland will see a “substantial” easing of lockdown when the country returns to the levels system at the end of next month.
The First Minister said while she wanted to adopt a national approach initially, those areas with lower rates on infection could hopefully “go faster”.
Scotland is set to return to its levels system, with different tiers of restrictions applying in different areas, from April 26.
But with the current lockdown, combined with the vaccination programme, resulting in falling case numbers, she was pressed on whether the easing of restrictions could go faster.
The First Minister told MSPs on Holyrood’s Covid-19 Committee that Scotland had recorded 691 further coronavirus cases – 3.1% of all new tests carried out – and 20 more deaths in the past 24 hours.
She added that by 8.30am on Wednesday a total of 1,809,158 Scots had received their first dose of the vaccine – some 40% of the adult population.
But when asked about her plans for not returning to the levels system until April 26, Sturgeon said coronavirus was still “circulating at levels that are too high for comfort”.
She added that the strain of the virus that is dominant in Scotland is “much more infectious” than infections last year.
The First Minister continued: “We know from pretty hard experience in the final part of last year, and the first part of this year, that it spreads and transmits very quickly and we don’t have experience yet as to how far and fast that will spread when we start to lift restrictions.
“And while we are making really good progress with the vaccine programme, in that 40% of the adult population is now vaccinated, we need to get that percentage higher to have a degree of protection from the vaccine that will substitute [for] the protection from lockdown measures.
“So we are being, I think, rightly cautious to make sure as we start to lift these restrictions we have as much certainty as we will ever have in a situation like this that we are not immediately going to be overtaken by the spread of the virus.”
Sturgeon said she hoped that “as we come out of lockdown measures, initially we can come out as one country”.
But she said the intention was then to use tougher restrictions under the levels system in areas where there are “flare-ups”.
Sturgeon stressed: “I hope that at least some substantial parts of the easing of lockdown can apply all across the country.
“It may very quickly (be possible) for some parts to go faster, and I am talking more island and rural communities, in particular.”
That came as she accepted there are “parts of the country where prevalence is much lower than it is in other parts of the country”.
But she also said it was not yet known what impact the return of youngsters to school would have on transmission.
“We just need to be cautious,” Sturgeon said. “The last thing we want to do is go faster because we are all impatient to get back to normal and find that it sets us back.”
She continued: “The exit from lockdown may be slower than any of us want it to be, for good reason, but my focus and priority is to try to make it steady and one-directional rather than go too fast now and find that we take one step forward and two steps back.
“I can’t guarantee we won’t have to do that, but I think a bit of caution at this stage is the best mitigation and protection against that.”
Her comments came as the chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, told the committee that Scotland was now in a “very different situation” from the exit from lockdown last summer.
He stated: “The virus we are now dealing with is a completely different virus in many respects.
“Before we take this very considered, measured approach in terms of how we begin to change the restrictions we have been living with, it is really important we don’t tip the balance in its favour again. And there is a very real risk that that will happen if we move too quickly and with too wide a scope.
“The virus that we are now dealing with is somewhere between 30% and 70% more transmissible than the virus we have been used to dealing with, and it is right that we just take that little bit of extra care and attention.”