London (AFP) – Football, rugby and other outdoor events in Scotland can return to full houses next week after the country’s government expressed tentative hope on Tuesday that the worst of the Omicron Covid outbreak had passed.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a 500-person cap on outdoor events would be lifted from Monday, but that organisers would have to step up checks of attendants’ vaccination status.

The decision clears the way for an Old Firm clash between Celtic and Rangers on February 2 and Scotland’s Six Nations clash with England three days later to be played in front of sellout crowds.

Sturgeon’s pro-independence administration, which sets health policy for Scotland, has consistently taken a much tougher line on Covid restrictions than Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s UK government in London.

But addressing members of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said: “Living with the virus is what we all desperately want to do.

“We know that we cannot continually rely on restrictive measures to manage the virus,” she said.

“But equally we cannot be indifferent to the continued risks the virus poses to health and wellbeing.” 

The Edinburgh government is still urging Scots to work from home and to limit contacts outside their households, Sturgeon said.

Along with Wales, Scotland late last month ordered sports fixtures to be played largely behind closed doors in response to a surge in infections of the new Omicron variant.

Johnson’s government imposed no such restriction in England, and Sturgeon said there were signs that Scotland was “starting to turn the corner” on the Omicron spike.

The news has been warmly welcomed by sports authorities who feared another financial hit after the entire 2020/2021 Scottish football season and Six Nations were played without fans in the stadiums.

Scottish Premiership clubs brought forward a planned winter break by a week to minimise the disruption caused by the restrictions.

“Football is not the same without supporters, and I know how much it will mean to them to be back in stadiums watching matches again,” said Neil Doncaster, chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football League.

“This news will also be a real financial boost for our 42 member clubs, who have faced an incredibly challenging set of circumstances since the pandemic began.”

Scotland will also host France at Murrayfield in the Six Nations on February 26.

The Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) had reportedly considered moving those matches to England unless the restrictions were eased.

“Scottish Rugby has welcomed today’s confirmation from the Scottish Government that attendance limits on outdoor events will be lifted from next week,” the SRU said in a statement.

“This will enable the forthcoming Guinness Six Nations matches to go ahead and we continue, as planned, to host England and France at BT Murrayfield, starting with the Calcutta Cup on Saturday 5 February.”