NICOLA Sturgeon has said she expects there to be a “slight and careful” relaxation of Covid restrictions at Christmas - but not at New Year.

The First Minister also warned that any visits would carry a risk of infection and said people should not feel under pressure to see loved ones just because it was possible. 

“You shouldn’t feel under pressure to see more people at Christmas, but [do so] if you really need to,” she said.

She said people should “think very carefully” if they really needed to travel and visit people indoors, or could meet more safely online instead.

She said: “It’s maybe worth asking yourself now, do we need to visit family or friends over Christmas?

"Because if we feel we don’t have to, then delaying a visit until the spring, especially if that visit involves travel, might be the better option.

“And it may leave more space for those who really do need to are able to care for a vulnerable elderly relative, for example, to do so.”

She also revealed she had abandoned her usual plans for a double-digit festive gathering at her home and had yet to decide whether to meet her own parents at Christmas.

She said she would decide on what was best for them given the continued health risks.

The Scottish Cabinet is expected to sign off four-nation plans for a limited change to the rules on indoor gatherings at Christmas tomorrow.

Although there is speculation up to four households may be allowed to meet up, Ms Sturgeon said the discussion had not been around a number as high as that.

The Cabinet Office said on Sunday that leaders across the UK had endorsed an objective of “some limited additional household bubbling” over the Christmas period for a few days.

However Ms Sturgeon stressed the details were “still to be finalised”, and the conclusions would be confirmed later in the week.

It would be difficult to strike the right balance, she admitted.

She said: “Reducing the prevalence of the virus... will allow us to consider a slight and careful, and I want to stress today those words slight and careful, easing of the rules for a few days over the festive period.

“There is an obvious desire to see loved ones at Christmas, I think we all feel that very strongly, but also a lot of anxiety about the potential risks associated with that, particularly we are at a time when we are starting to see, perhaps, the end of this pandemic loom on horizon.

“So we are trying as hard as we can to reach a sensible balance.

“So it is possible, likely in fact that some households may be able to form slightly larger bubbles with each other for a short period over Christmas, and we are considering this because we recognise that isolation and loneliness can hit people particularly hard over the Christmas period.

"And so for some people, doing the right thing at Christmas, will mean taking time to care for and be with loved ones who might otherwise be on their own.

"That said we cannot ignore that any relaxation of the restrictions carries additional risk."

She went on: "I’m afraid the virus won’t take Christmas off. And so if we provide it with opportunities to spread from household to household, it is likely to take those.

"That would be a worry at any time, but perhaps more so when we could be within weeks of being able to vaccinate a significant proportion of the population.

"And so it’s for these reasons we need to be sensible and careful.

"And it is also why that when we do set out the rules which will apply over the festive period, we also the Scottish Government intend to set out the precautions that we are advising people to take.

"We will remind families that, just because you might be able to mix a bit more indoors over Christmas in a limited way, that doesn’t mean you have to do that if you don’t think it is necessary or you can get through Christmas without it.

“We will ask people to think very carefully about if you really need to travel and visit indoors, or if there are other ways, for example through technology or by meeting outside, in which you can ensure our loved ones are well, without taking risks."

She said there would not be a four-nation agreement covering both Christmas and New Year, only the former. 

She said: “I do not expect that we will be announcing any particular relaxations over the New year period.

"Why not? Because we can’t do everything. The Christmas thing is hard enough. Why Christmas and not New Year? Christmas is a more important time for kids. 

“I think for most of us, even if we value New year, Christmas is still the time when families are more likely to want to not have somebody on their own.

“We can’t do everything right now.”

Referring to recent vaccine developments, she added: “We can see the light at the end of this tunnel.

"We just need to gird ourselves and get through this next period, even if that includes not having a normal Christmas, in the hope that not too far into next year we will start to enjoy much more normality and interact with loves ones more.

“Let’s make sure we get to the end of it with as little loss of life as we possibly can.”

Asked whether she would see her own parents at Christmas, Ms Sturgeon said: “My usual family Christmas is having my parents, sister and kids and my husband’s mother, sister and kids to our house.

“It is more than 10 people.

“We will not be doing that this year – absolutely not – because I think that would be outwith any kind of reasonable limits and I don’t want to put elderly parents or mother in law at risk so we will not do that.”

Ms Sturgeon also disclosed the last time she saw her parents was July 19 – the day of her 50th birthday.

On whether she would see her parents this Christmas, she said: “I don’t know, I will think about that carefully, from their point of view more than from mine.”

Speaking at the daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon also said there were unlikely to be many changes to council lockdown levels at their weekly review tomorrow apart from East Lothian moving from level 3 to level 2.

A similar plan to move Midlothian from level 3 to 2, which was also tentatively annuonced last week, is now up in the air after a rise in cases and test positivity rates.

She said the “overwhelming majority of local authority areas will remain in the current level” of restrictions.

The latest coronavirus figures for Scotland show 949 people tested positive for coronavirus in the past 24 hours, with no new deaths recorded, but only because of the weekend closure of registration offices.

Professor Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said that meeting people indoors would not come without risks.

She told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “Many of us would wish to see our older relatives at Christmas, and we know that mortality from Covid-19 is significantly higher for older people – I think around 86% of deaths in hospital occurred in people over the age of 65 – so this is concerning.

“At the moment we still have levels of infection in the community across the UK that are higher than we would wish.

“If we come together with people from different households at the time of year when the windows are closed, the people you care about, physical distancing is difficult, it is an opportunity for the virus to spread, so this is really really tough.”

 Prof Bauld said that, in planning whether people can meet over the festive period, governments may also be concerned about mental health, with levels of depression and anxiety significantly higher than expected for the time of year due to the pandemic.

“This discussion is about trying to recognise that there are not only harms from the virus, there are other harms, people want to see their loved ones,” she said.

She added that, even if restrictions are eased, people should make their own decisions about what they feel comfortable doing.

“It is up to us to decide, even if government says ‘OK, you can get together indoors with other people’, let’s all make our own risk assessment about the people we care about and ourselves and say how are we going to apply that to our own personal circumstances.

“So I think, as with everything throughout this pandemic, it has got to be a partnership between guidance and support that government gives and what people decide to do for themselves and for their families.”

Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, told Good Morning Scotland she was against restrictions being eased "simply because it's Christmas".

She added: "It certainly sounds as if that it's a trade-off - that you behave now, keep transmission low, then we might be able to do something over Christmas that resembles something familiar to us.

"The best Christmas present we can give to people is to keep them safe - it really is the bottom line.

"The best way to keep safe is to try and avoid the risk as much as possible and if you must meet family, which most of us are longing to do, try to do it outdoors if you possibly can - and fingers crossed we get a dry and less windy and wet Christmas time."

Even John Keenan, the bishop of Paisley, who last month called for a 24-hour Christmas "truce" involving a lifting of restrictions, admitted he was “conflicted”.

Although he welcomed politicians considering a way to accommodate Christmas during the pandemic, he told the BBC:

He said: "The thought of my mum - who's a widow - being on her own all through Christmas day is an awful thought for me.

"On the other hand the thought that I might go there and pass on a virus to her is equally awful so I think we're all conflicted about it. "