The first minister has said she “cannot rule out even tighter level four restrictions” as the country grapples with a new Covid-19 variant “fast becoming” the most dominant in the country.
Nicola Sturgeon said the “severity of the challenge” could mean tougher rules are introduced in a bid to suppress the virus – on the day the country recorded a “record high” of more than 2,000 Covid-19 cases in a day.
The Scottish Government is continuing to assess the situation on a “daily basis” and parliament will be updated if any changes are required over the coming days.
The first minister said the new strain of the virus has already made a normal return to school next week “impossible”, with the government assessing if the plan to reopen on January 18 will go ahead.
MSPs were told the prevalence of the new Covid-19 strain is a “cause for concern given it is thought to be significantly more transmissable”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Analysis done by Public Health Scotland shows that, on Tuesday, 42.8% of positive tests processed for Scotland in the Lighthouse labs had the S gene drop out that is indicative of this new strain.
“That is higher than the 38% suggested by ONS analysis for the week beginning December 14 and that in turn compared to just 6% at the end of November.”
Opposition MSPs quizzed Ms Sturgeon on when parents and teachers could expect clarity on children going back to school.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said parents would hear Ms Sturgeon’s comments and wonder if schools will be able to return to face-t0-face teaching after January 18.
He added: “Many of them are worried about the implications of a return to home learning.”
Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to see schools return normally on January 18 but would be assessing the “up to date situation” over the next few days.
She added that if there are any changes these will be set out “as early as possible” to give parents and teachers as “much notice as possible”.
The first minister hailed Wednesday’s announcement that a Covid-19 vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been approved for use in the UK, confirming it will be rolled out in Scotland from Monday.
Ms Sturgeon said the new vaccine will be “logistically easier” to deliver than the Pfizer/BioNTech jab and the UK has secured a “much higher number” of doses.
The Scottish Conservative leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, asked the first minister when a list of mass vaccination venues will be published but Ms Sturgeon said this information would be provided to parliament later.
Ms Davidson said it was “imperative” for the Scottish Government to explain what progress has been made securing large-scale venues for mass vaccination.
She claimed she was “disappointed” with the first minister’s answers, which she said “lacked any meaningful detail”.
Ms Davidson added: “We cannot afford a repeat of this year’s botched flu vaccine.”
Meanwhile, the first minister confirmed it has now been recommended that a second dose of the vaccine can now be given up to 12 weeks after the first rather than three.
This enables the Scottish Government to prioritise giving the first jab to “as many people as possible” rather than providing the required two doses in as short a time as possible, meaning “more people will be vaccinated more quickly”.
As of Sunday, more than 92,000 people across Scotland have received their first shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
‘No gatherings, no house parties, no first footing’
In her statement to parliament, the first minister said most people will be “glad to see the back of 2020” but stressed the vaccine announcement offers “greater hope for the year ahead”.
She urged the public to do all they can to protect themselves, particularly given the risk of the new variant.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We must mark this new year responsibly and in line with the restrictions in place.
“To be clear, that means no gatherings, no house parties, no first footing.
“Instead you should bring in 2021 in your own homes with your own household. This new strain is very serious and I cannot stress that enough.”
The latest Scottish Government figures show a “record high” of 2,045 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the last 24 hours, after a previous high of 1,895 cases on Tuesday.
The new figures, reported on Wednesday, also reveal there were 43 deaths since yesterday, bringing the death toll under this measure – of people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days – to 4,510.
A regional breakdown of the figures reveal five north-east residents died in the last 24 hours from the virus – two in Aberdeen and three in Aberdeenshire.
One death was also recorded in Argyll and Bute in the same timeframe.
Meanwhile, one person died as a result of the virus in Dundee and two people lost their lives in Perth and Kinross.
Wednesday’s data shows 184 new cases were reported across the NHS Grampian area, with 97 in Aberdeen, 67 in Aberdeenshire and 2o in Moray.
A total of 67 cases was reported across the NHS Highland health board area, with 52 in the Highland Council area and 15 in Argyll and Bute.
There was one new positive case recorded in the Western Isles and no new cases recorded in Orkney.
A total of 130 cases was recorded across Tayside in the past 24 hours, with 74 in Dundee, 29 in Perth and Kinross and 27 in Angus.
Meanwhile, 110 people tested positive for coronavirus in Fife.
Across Scotland, 1,133 people are in hospital with recently confirmed Covid-19 and 69 of those are receiving treatment in intensive care.