Omicron has overtaken Delta as the dominant strain of Coronavirus in Scotland, the First Minister has said.
The new variant is now accounting for 51.3% cent of cases, with infections doubling every two to three days.
As of 5pm yesterday Omicron was responsible for 696 of cases confirmed by genomic sequencing, which is said to vastly underestimate numbers.
Speaking during an emergency briefing, Nicola Sturgeon urged the public to spend as much time at home as possible in the run up to Christmas and try to minimise the risks on December 25 by testing ahead of gatherings and opening windows.
“The Tsunami is now starting to hit us but we shouldn’t be fatalistic. We are not powerless,” she said.
“As of now the scale is of profound concern. Even if it did turn out to generally less severe, for some people it will still cause severe illness and tragically, more people will die.
“Just three weeks ago I really thought we had turned a corner and had a genuine prospect of a much more normal run-up to Christmas.
“The emergence of Omicron really has been the cruellest of blows. So it is quite understandable we are all feeling sad, upset, frustrated, even angry about this. Believe me, I am not immune from these feelings.
“My advice to people is please limit your social interactions wherever they would normally be. I’m asking people – and I’m not doing this lightly after two years – I’m asking people in the run up to Christmas to stay at home as much as they possibly can.
“My message to everbody is think very carefully about every interaction you are having.
“We are a week and a day away from Christmas. Anyone who gets Covid now will be isolating over Christmas Day.”
She said asking the public to consider whether every interaction with others was necessary was “the toughest message imaginable.”
Hospital admissions in the week up to December 13 were slightly higher than the previous seven days but she said “more significantly” hospital admissions were rising sharply in London, which has the highest number of Omicron cases in the UK.
“If we don’t act now, the overwhelming of the NHS could happen,” she said.
There were 4,336 cases of coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, giving a positive rate of 10.1%.
A total of 522 people are in hospital, 10 fewer that yesterday with 33 in intensive care, one fewer than yesterday. A futher seven deaths were reported.
Asked whether another lockdown was possible she said, “nothing was inevitable”.
“Over the new few weeks we can all influence how high that increase will be,” said the First Minister.
She said the Scottish Government had found £100million from its existing budget to help businesses with £66 million allocated to hospitality, £8 million given to businesses in the food and drink supply chain, £20 million allocated to the culture sector, £3 million for the wedding industry and £3 million for the “worst affected parts of tourism”.
“I know it won’t fully compensate those sectors,” said Ms Sturgeon, who has written to the Treasury seeking additional funds.
“I would have hoped I would have spoken to him (the Prime Minister) by now. The UK government has to get its finger out.”
Asked why large scale events such as football matches or concerts were not being cancelled the First Minister said she did not yet have the funds from Westminster to compensate those busineses.
She said: “There has to be a systemic approach to this whereby if we have to take difficult decisions, the support kicks in straight away.
“Had we the financial support mechanisms in place that we had earlier in the pandemic, I would be more able to give straightforward advice to events and say don’t go ahead. I can’t do that when I can’t compensate people.
“All I can do is ask people to modify their behaviour and that also has an impact on businesses.
“We are not going to be curtailed in taking any essential steps to protect public health by a lack of finance so there needs to be clarity.
“That doesn’t mean that any of us want to be in the position of having to take further steps but having gone through this as First Minister for two years and Boris Johnson has done the same as Prime Minister, the one thing that we have learned is that in these moments we need to have the ability to act as we consider necessary to protect public health and we need to have the ability to act quickly.
“That means we should have the certainty of being able to do that without pushing businesses into intolerable difficulties.”
She said the best way to support firms right now was to get the virus under control and the public could help this by spending as much time at home as possible, taking lateral flow tests and getting vaccinated.
“We should try to hold onto hope but we are in so much of a better position that we were at this time last year.
“We do know what to do to slow this virus down.” She said booster vaccinations had accelerated to their fastest rate yet and urged pregnant women to attend.
Dr Gregor Smith, Chief Medical Officer, said it would be some time before we understand the severity of the disease caused by Omicrom and whether the variant will completely replace Delta.
Earlier this week Scots were urged to minimise their social contacts and limit interactions to a maximum of three households at once in a bid to curb infections.
New guidance has also come into force setting out mitigations which should be adopted in retail and hospitality venues.
Pubs and restaurants are “strongly encouraged” to reinstate table service only to reduce crowding around bar areas, and operators are also urged to have customers order food and drink via apps.
Shops and supermarkets, meanwhile, have been told to bring back one-way systems with separate entrances and exits where possible to manage the flow of customers, and have floor markings and queue management systems in place to keep people apart.
It came as Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, told MPs at Westminster’s health and social care committee that the sheer pace of transmission associated with Omicron could lead to daily hospitalisations with the virus to exceed the UK-wide peak of 4,583 on January 12 this year, when the Alpha variant was spreading rapidly.
Prof Whitty added that pressure on hospitals would be exacerbated by a simultaneous influx of patients at a time when the virus is also driving an increase in NHS staff absences.