Nicola Sturgeon warned Scots she cannot rule out imposing further coronavirus restrictions in the wake of a tenfold rise in cases of the new Omicron variant in the space of a week.
The First Minister told MSPs at Holyrood that 99 Omicron cases had now been detected in Scotland – with this up from just nine seven days ago.
As a result of the “very significant risks posed by Omicron”, she said it was “important to keep the need for any additional protections under daily review”.
To tackle the spread of the latest Covid variant, which “may be significantly more transmissible than anything before”, Ms Sturgeon called on Scots to go “back to basics”.
She urged people to step up their compliance with measures already in place, such as working from home and testing themselves before mixing with others over the Christmas period.
As she warned the country could face a “continued and potentially rapid rise in cases in the days ahead”, she added that such measures alone may not be enough to curb transmission.
The First Minister said: “I do really hope we can avoid any further measures.
“I cannot guarantee this however, I don’t think any responsible person in my position could ever guarantee this at this stage.”
Given the current circumstances, she added it was “important to remain open to any proportionate measures” – such as a possible extension of vaccine passports.
With Omicron cases in nine out of 14 health board areas, Ms Sturgeon said this suggested “community transmission is becoming more widespread, and possibly more sustained, across the country”.
Her comments came as coronavirus cases across Scotland increased by 11% in the past week, with just over 2,800 new cases a day being recorded on average.
The latest daily figures showed 3,060 coronavirus cases reported on Monday as well as a further 12 deaths – taking the total under this measurement to 9,661.
While Omicron currently only makes up about 4% of Covid cases in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon insisted its arrival in Scotland was a “very significant cause for concern”.
She said scientists had a “reasonable degree of certainty at this stage that Omicron is more transmissible than the Delta variant, and perhaps significantly so”.
In addition, it is also thought to be more capable of infecting people who have already had Covid.
Ms Sturgeon said: “A variant that is more transmissible than Delta, and which has even a limited ability to evade natural or vaccine immunity, has the potential to put very intense additional pressure on the health service.
“The sheer weight of numbers of people who could be infected as a result of increased transmissibility and some immunity evasion will create this pressure even if the disease the new variant causes in individuals is no more severe than Delta.
“So there is no doubt, unfortunately, that this is another serious moment in the course of the pandemic.”
She warned that the coming days and weeks “may involve very difficult judgments for governments everywhere” as she said the first principle of the Scottish Government would be “to seek to do what is necessary to keep the country as safe as possible, even if that is at the expense of being popular”.
While people are already advised to work from home where they can, Ms Sturgeon appealed to employers to make sure this is happening.
She told them: “To be blunt, if you had staff working from home at this start of the pandemic, please now enable them to do so again.
“We are asking you to do this from now until the middle of January when we will review this advice again.”
She also urged people to test themselves using lateral flow devices before mixing with others.
People should do this “before going to a pub, restaurant, visiting someone else’s house, or even going shopping”, Ms Sturgeon said.
She told MSPs: “I am currently doing a test every morning before coming to work, I will do a test on any occasion I mix with others over the festive period. And I will ask anyone visiting my home over Christmas to do likewise.”