Nicola Sturgeon has urged Scots to “think carefully” before forming a Christmas bubble with family and friends over the festive season.
The First Minister made the plea after the Scottish Government published new guidance on what will be permitted when coronavirus restrictions are eased between December 23 and 27.
During that period, three households can form a “bubble”, allowing them to meet indoors, outdoors or in a place of worship.
Scots are being advised to have no more than eight people aged over 12 in any Christmas bubble they form, and these can only include one extended household.
Children under the age of 12 will not be counted towards the total number of people permitted in any grouping.
Those living in shared flats are being urged not to split up from their current housemates, while people who might want to visit a loved one in hospital or a care home are advised to avoid entering any “bubble” arrangement.
Speaking at Holyrood on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon urged Scots to show caution, saying: “This virus spreads when people come together so we are asking everyone to think carefully before using these flexibilities.”
For those who do opt to form a “bubble”, the First Minister stressed health advice “even if fully implemented will not completely eradicate risk”.
She urged people to consider “alternative ways to have Christmas contact with those we love”, such as meeting outdoors for a family walk or by using technology.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We know that some people will come to the view that the right thing for them at Christmas is spending time indoors with friends and loved ones, who might otherwise be isolated and alone, so we want to make sure there is clear guidance about boundaries in place.
“But we also know the virus will not take a break over Christmas and having indoor gatherings present a high risk of transmission.
“If we can find a different way of marking Christmas this year, the fact is that will be a safer alternative, albeit a very tough one for everyone.”
Her comments came as the latest daily figures showed Scotland has recorded 51 deaths from coronavirus and 1,225 positive tests in the past 24 hours.
Despite this, Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s national clinical director, told Holyrood’s Covid-19 Committee the country is “just beginning to turn a corner” in the fight against coronavirus.
He said the R number – the average number of people each person with the virus goes on to infect – is thought to have been below one “for a week, maybe”.
But he said infections in Scotland are “still way too high”.
Constitution Secretary Mike Russell told the same committee that anyone joining a bubble could be taking a “significant risk” and Scots should take care not to “do anything to extend that risk if you can possibly avoid it”.
He stressed: “We are asking people to be very, very cautious, recognising the special nature of the time, but being very cautious.
“This is a period of some leeway to allow people to visit friends and family, particularly in extremis where people have not seen each other for a long period of time.
“It is not a licence to change the way in which we live our lives for those five days, that is really, really important that is understood.”
He added: “There are strong grounds for allowing this period but it should not be thought of in any other way than that slight lessening to allow something to happen.
“It is not a change of regulations, it is not saying ‘phew, that is over’.”
Prof Leitch advised Scots to “turn down social interaction” before joining a Christmas bubble, to help make the arrangement as safe as possible.
“It’s not quite self-isolation but try to limit your interaction with other people prior to joining that bubble, and get everybody else to do the same,” he said.
The Scottish Government guidance also urges caution for those identified as being the most vulnerable to Covid-19, stating “being part of a bubble would involve greater risks for you”.
It adds: “It is important that you do not feel pressured to celebrate the festive season in an environment that makes you anxious.”
The entire bubble will be forced to self-isolate where they are, whether that be at someone else’s home or their own, if one of their number shows coronavirus symptoms or tests positive for the virus.
A positive test, along with travel disruption, are the only two reasons given to allow a person not to return to their normal household by December 27.