Coronavirus (COVID-19): Protection levels

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On 23 October 2020, the Scottish Government published its Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s Strategic Framework.  This document outlines the Scottish Government’s system of protection levels to manage the pandemic in Scotland. This blog provides a high-level summary of the protection levels and the current restrictions across Scotland, together with some maps and charts to aid understanding for MSPs and their constituents.

What do the protection levels mean?

The Scottish Government has outlined a five-level approach, which is intended to allow restrictions based on specific indicators for an area, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ national approach. The five protection levels start at level 0, which is Phase 3 of the Scottish Government’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) route map.

There are four levels above this which each contain a number of restrictions across a range of areas including socialising, hospitality, accommodation, travel, retail, education and leisure, which are intended to suppress the virus.

Level 0 (baseline) and Level 1

Low incidence of the virus with isolated clusters and low community transmission.

These levels still include some restrictions but are considered to be the closest to normality that will be possible without a vaccine or effective treatment in place.

Levels 2-3

Increased incidence of the virus with multiple clusters and increased community transmission.

Under these levels, there will be several measures focusing on potential areas of risk. This includes indoor settings where household mixing takes place with less, or less well-observed, physical distancing and mitigations. The measures would be intended to be in place for relatively short periods (2-4 weeks), and only for as long as required to get the virus down to a low, sustainable level.

Level 4

Very high or rapidly increasing incidence and widespread community transmission which may pose a threat to the NHS to cope.

This level will see the introduction of measures close to a return to full lockdown

The following table shows the restrictions on socialising in each level. More information on the Protection Levels Framework can be found on the Scottish Government website.

Level 0
8 people from 3 households
15 people from 5 households
Level 1
6 people from 2 households
8 people from 3 households
Level 2
No in-home socialising
6 people from 2 households outdoors and in public place
Level 3
No in-home socialising
6 people from 2 households outdoors and in public place
Level 4
No in-home socialising
6 people from 2 households outdoors and in public place

What do the current protection levels look like across Scotland?

The Scottish Government set the initial levels for each local authority area on 29 October 2020. The levels will be reviewed each week based on the latest evidence and a decision will be made on whether to maintain, increase, or reduce the level of an area. This indicators are:

  • The number of cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.
  • The percentage of tests that are positive over the past seven days.
  • Forecasts of the number of cases per 100,000, consisting of the weekly number of cases in two weeks’ time.
  • Current and projected future use of local hospital beds, compared with capacity.
  • Current and projected future use of intensive care beds, compared with capacity.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it would be possible to introduce measures on a smaller level, such as a town or island community – or indeed regionally or nationally, if that is deemed justified, necessary and proportionate.

Latest announced change to protection levels

As of 5 January 2021, mainland Scotland is in lockdown with new legal requirements forbidding anyone from leaving their home except for essential purposes. The Scottish Government has published Coronavirus (COVID-19): stay at home guidance which outlines reasonable excuses for leaving the home.

Other key changes include:

  • changing the 6/2 rule to a 2/2 rule. A maximum of two people from up to two households will be able to meet outdoors. Children aged 11 and under will not be counted in that limit
  • Outdoor exercise or recreation should only take place in a way which is consistent with the 2/2 rule
  • under 12s will not count towards the 2/2 rule and will continue to be able to participate in organised activities outdoors
  • all schools to continue to use remote learning until the end of January, except in the case of vulnerable children and those of key workers
  • stronger guidance on working from home is reflected in new guidance for people who are shielding. Those who are shielding and who cannot work from home are now advised not to work.

The island areas will remain in Level 3, but will be kept under review.

The following islands in Argyll and Bute will remain in level 3

The Isle of Coll, the Isle of Colonsay, the Isle of Erraid, the Isle of Gometra, the Isle of Iona, the Isle of Islay, the Isle of Jura, the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Oronsay, the Isle of Tiree, and the Isle of Ulva.

All islands in Highland will move to level 3, except the Isle of Skye, which will move to level 4.

Barra and Vattersay were moved to level 4 as of 20 January 2021.

The following map shows the current protection level for each local authority area.

On 23 February 2021, the Scottish Government published the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Strategic Framework update – February 2021 which outlines that the earliest the country will return to the level structure will be 26 April. They also highlighted that the metric to decided levels will be revised metrics in light of WHO guidance.

Latest update: 20 January 2020

Protection level by local authority area in Scotland from Tuesday 20 January

How have the protection levels changed? 

The following interactive chart tracks how protection levels have changed in Scotland. It is based on what the protection level was at on Friday of each week, apart from the first week which uses the date that the protections level first came into effect. 

Tips on using the tool:

  • You can click on a protection level in the legend above the chart and this will remove all areas on that level.
  • You can double click on a protection level in the legend above the chart and this will highlight all areas on that level. Double click again to reset.

Updated: 26 February 2021

Change in protection levels

Test positivity and cases per 100,000 of the population, by local authority

This section looks at data, by local authority, on:

  • The number of cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.
  • The percentage of tests that are positive over the past seven days – testpositivity.

These are only two of the five indicators used by the Scottish Government when considering protection levels. It should be noted that while these are useful to give an indication, they are not used in isolation, meaning no assumptions should be made on this data alone. 

The Public Health Scotland COVID-19 dashboard has more information at local authority level.

Latest update: 26 February 2021

Test positivity and cases per 100,000 of the population, by local authority: 19 to 25 February 2021

Source: Public Health Scotland

The following table shows the threshold the Scottish Government uses for these two indicators. They come from the 1 December evidence paper from the Scottish Government. 

Protection level 
Cases per 100,000 
Test positivity 
Level 4 
More than 300 
Over 10% 
Level 3 
Between 150 and 300 
Between 5% and 10% 
Level 2 
Between 75 and 150 
Between 3% and 5% 
Level 1 
Between 20 and 75 
Between 1.5% and 3% 

You can find more information on the latest data on testing, hospital admissions and deaths in Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Scotland – latest data.

Andrew Aiton, Data Visualisation Manager

Featured image: “19960528 01 Scotland Map” by davidwilson1949 is licensed under CC BY 2.0