MORE than half of Scotland’s intensive care beds are empty as admissions of critically ill coronavirus patients show signs of slowing.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there were “optimistic signs” in the fight against the infection as ministers prepare to review the lockdown measures.

However, Ms Sturgeon stressed that restrictions were unlikely to be lifted in the “very near future”, as the Scottish Government urged the bereaved not to delay funerals in the hope that measures limiting how many can attend will soon be dropped.

READ MORE: Poverty, lockdown, or missed Covid deaths - what is behind Scotland's mystery surge in deaths? 

It came as Health Secretary Jeane Freeman confirmed that there are a total of 266 people currently being treated in intensive care units (ICU) for all conditions, including 211 who have confirmed or suspected Covid-19.

To date, Scotland’s ICU capacity has been increased from 190 beds to 585, with a target of 700.

Ms Freeman said: “That effectively trebles our capacity and shows that as the virus progresses, at present, our capacity is sufficient to meet anticipated demand.”

The latest statistics show that admissions to hospital and ICU have been levelling off in recent days.

Between March 23 - when lockdown was announced - and March 30, the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care surged 260%, from 30 to 108.

The following week, it rose from 108 to 199 - an increase of 84% - but in the past week, from April 6 to April 13, new admissions have virtually stalled, with a growth in patient numbers of just 6%, from 199 to 211.

The surplus ICU capacity runs counter to the experiences in some of Europe’s worst-hit regions, such as Lombardy in Italy, where medics faced heartbreaking decisions about which patients to prioritise for ventilator beds.

Dr Stephen Cole, president of the Scottish Intensive Care Society and a consultant at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, said: “What I can say locally is that we prepared fantastically well. What we saw in London, the south-east, Italy and Spain hasn’t materialised here.”

However, Dr Cole added that negotiating the next phase of trying to relax social distancing without provoking a second wave of virus deaths would be a challenge.

“We are all learning from everyone else,” said Dr Cole. “All we can try to do is reduce the peak so as not to overwhelm the NHS and ICU in particular.

“To date in Scotland, we still have beds, we still have ICU capacity for critically ill patients, but what we do next and how we reduce the economic disturbances which are awful for people while still keeping a lid on things, I don’t know.”

READ MORE: Care workers at East Dunbartonshire home claim they were 'hushed up' over fatal Covid outbreak 

Overall hospital admissions linked to the virus also appear to be in decline. In the past week, the number of people receiving treatment for coronavirus in hospital - either in ICU or on general wards - increased by just 9%, to 1797.

By contrast, the previous week had seen a 78% increase in patients, from 924 to 1646.

A slowdown in hospital and ICU admissions is a key turning point, seen in countries including Spain and Italy, shortly before their daily death numbers began to decline.

In Spain, workers in manufacturing and construction, are beginning returning to work, while Italy will allow some shops to re-open from today - although the majority of restrictions will remain in place until May 3.

In Scotland the death toll has reached 575, although this only includes people who have tested positive for the virus. National Records of Scotland data, based on death certificates, suggests mortality is actually 61% higher.

It comes ahead of Thursday’s deadline to review the UK-wide lockdown. However, Ms Sturgeon warned that an exit was not imminent.

She said: “That review is not likely to result in these restrictions being lifted in the very near future. There are early optimistic signs that the steps we are taking are working, but until we know more, until we have solid evidence, we must stick with it.

“They will not be in place for a single minute longer than necessary. But we also know that if we lift these restrictions too early or we do so without thinking through properly how we can ease the restrictions while still keeping the virus under control, then we risk the virus spreading out of control.

“We risk it overwhelming our national health service, and of course we risk it taking many more lives.”

READ MORE: Tributes to Greenock nurse who becomes first NHS Scotland worker to die from virus 

Asked whether she believed a better model was exemplified by New Zealand, which has recorded just five deaths and closed its borders to visitors within three weeks of its first confirmed case, with a full lockdown following one week later, Ms Sturgeon said it was “too early to draw firm conclusions”.

She added: “When we are comparing different countries, we have to be careful to compare like with like in terms of how we’re measuring different things but also population size, population density.

“Secondly, we are not yet through the pandemic. This is not a comment about New Zealand or any other country, but we’re not through this pandemic yet and we do see in some countries that had earlier outbreaks, earlier restrictions, and earlier lifting of restrictions that we’re seeing something of a resurgence.”

Shops across Scotland are closing. Newspaper sales are falling. But we’ve chosen to keep our coverage of the coronavirus crisis free because it’s so important for the people of Scotland to stay informed during this difficult time.

However, producing The Herald's unrivalled analysis, insight and opinion on a daily basis still costs money, and we need your support to sustain our trusted, quality journalism.

To help us get through this, we’re asking readers to take a digital subscription to The Herald. You can sign up now for just £2 for two months.

If you choose to sign up, we’ll offer a faster loading, advert-light experience – and deliver a digital version of the print product to your device every day.

Click here to help The Herald: 

Thank you