Nicola Sturgeon has cancelled Scotland’s traditional Hogmanay events and ordered football stadia to "effectively" empty as she reverted to lockdown measures to stem the spread of omicron.
The First Minister told MSPs that only 500 people would be permitted at outdoor public events for three weeks from Sunday, with one-metre physical distancing applied.
This includes football matches over the festive period, such as the Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers on Jan 2. Ms Sturgeon admitted the limits make sports matches "effectively spectator-free over this three-week period".
In a Holyrood statement, she said it would mean that "large-scale Hogmanay celebrations", including Edinburgh’s world-famous street party, would no longer take place. Christmas pantomimes and theatres also face closure under even stricter limits on indoor events.
The First Minister announced that "a requirement for table service" would be introduced at hospitality premises serving alcohol from Dec 27, again for three weeks.
Number of Omicron Covid cases in Scotland
Pubs, bars and restaurants will also be asked to ensure that one-metre social distancing be introduced between different groups in their premises.
Physical distancing will also be reintroduced in gyms, theatres, cinemas, bingo and snooker halls, bowling alleys, museums, galleries and other visitor attractions. However, it will not be required in churches or public transport.
Ms Sturgeon reiterated her "core advice" that social gatherings should be limited to three households and for people to stay home "as much as feasible".
Although she did not introduce legal restrictions on Hogmanay house parties, she urged Scots to minimise their socialising "as much as you can".
However, she repeated her announcement from the previous day that there would be no further restrictions to family gatherings over the Christmas weekend, giving families the green light to press ahead with their plans.
The traditional Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh will now not take place this year
Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
All measures will be reviewed on Jan 11, almost two weeks after her Dec 31 target for 80 per cent of the adult population to get their booster vaccination. It is hoped the population’s protection against omicron will be "maximised" at this point.
But the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said her new restrictions were a "hammer blow for employers and Scotland’s economy" and warned the financial support on offer "still does not go anywhere near far enough".
Among the other major announcements in Ms Sturgeon’s statement were:
- Schools will be reopened without delay after the Christmas holidays as a "priority".
- Scotland’s struggling Test & Protect contact tracing system is to start contacting positive cases by text or email rather than phone.
- Her strict policy that everyone in the household of a positive case must self-isolate for 10 days is to be eased.
The average daily number of omicron cases in Scotland has surged by more than 50 per cent over the past week, from 3,500 to 5,500. This included a 161 per cent surge among the 20- to 24-year-olds, most of whom have yet to have a booster jab.
Ms Sturgeon said the variant had a "R number well above three", meaning each carrier infects on average at least three other people. However, the number of Scots in hospital and intensive care both fell on Tuesday.
‘This statement feels distressingly similar to last year’s’
She said: "This statement feels distressingly similar to the one I gave this time last year. Just a few days before Christmas, I am again urging people to stay at home as much as possible, to slow down a highly infectious new variant.
"But, although it may not feel like it, we are in a much stronger position than last year. We have had far fewer restrictions in place for much of this year than was the case last year.
"Christmas Day will be more normal. Most importantly, a rapidly increasing number of adults is now protected by three doses of vaccine."
From 5am on Sunday, Ms Sturgeon said indoor standing events will be limited to 100 people, indoor seated events to 200 and outdoor events to 500 seated or standing.
"And it will also mean that large scale Hogmanay celebrations including that planned here in our capital city will not proceed," she said. "I know how disappointing this will be for those looking forward to these events, and for the organisers of them."
However, she said the limits did not apply to private events such as weddings.
She added that amateur indoor contact sports for adults would also be banned for three weeks from Boxing Day because they create a "heightened risk of transmission".
Ms Sturgeon also disclosed that Test & Protect’s contact tracing teams are to focus on "higher risk settings" such as hospitals and care homes.
"For many of us, this means that if we test positive, our contact from Test & Protect teams is more likely to be by text or e-mail, rather than phone call," she said.
As more Scots get their booster jabs, Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to change her policy forcing everyone in a household with a positive case to self-isolate for 10 days.
She said: "The Government is actively considering as the booster programme meets its target moving away from the current situation to something more proportionate, but it would be counterproductive to do that right now."
People queue outside the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Tuesday as they wait to receive their booster vaccinations
Credit: Jane Barlow/PA
Once the booster programme is completed, she will again consider whether Covid passports should be expanded from nightclubs and large events to other settings.
Ms Sturgeon also unveiled a £375 million fund to help businesses deal with "the unavoidable impact of our decisions over the next three weeks".
Despite the Chancellor handing her Government an extra £440 million, she claimed "that financial support at scale is triggered only when the UK government takes decisions for England" and alleged that meant her ability to introduce measures to protect public health was "curtailed".
She added: "This cannot be right in a public emergency… We will therefore continue to press the UK Government to take the threat of omicron more seriously and to act accordingly."
But Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said: "The SNP must stop the political games and focus on getting the funding out the door to protect Scottish jobs and businesses."