SCOTS are now ordered by law to stay at home except for essential reasons as Nicola Sturgeon put the country back into lockdown to halt a “steeply rising trend of infections”.

The tougher rules for mainland Scotland came into effect from midnight and will last for the entirety of January – with the First Minister warning she is “more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year”.

All schools on the mainland and the Scottish islands will remain closed until at least February 1 – meaning the “majority of pupils” will be taught remotely for the rest of January.

Following an announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night, similar measures also came into force in England, with primary and secondary schools south of the Border closed until the middle of February.

In mainland Scotland, currently in level four of the Scottish Government’s coronavirus framework, people are now only allowed to leave their home for exercise, to buy food and medical supplies and for work that cannot be done at home.

Ms Sturgeon said that the “stay at home” message is so important that it has been placed into law as it was during the first lockdown last year, adding that “it will only be permissible to leave home for an essential purpose”.

She added: “This will include, for example, caring responsibilities, essential shopping, exercise and being part of an extended household. In addition, anyone who is able to work from home, must do so. It will only be a reasonable excuse to leave your home to go to work, if that work cannot be done from home.”

Mr Johnson insisted the nation was at a “pivotal moment” in its fight against the pandemic and said: “I want to say to everyone right across the UK, I know how tough this is and how frustrated you are and you have had more than enough of Government guidance in defeating this virus.

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But now, more than ever, we must pull together.”“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe we are entering the last phase of this struggle because with every jab that goes into our arms, we’re tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people.”

The First Minister told MSPs at a recalled Holyrood yesterday that the measures were “similar to the lockdown of March last year”.

But a maximum of two people from two different households can still meet outdoors and there is no limit on the number of times people can leave home for exercise, unlike the first lockdown.

From Friday, places of worship will be required to close for communal worship. A maximum of five people can attend weddings and civil partnerships and 20 for funerals. Wakes have been banned.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that in the last week of December, the seven-day number of cases per 100,000 people in Scotland increased by 65% from 136 to 225 per 100,000.

The First Minister added that she expects hospital data, set to be published today, to show “the total number of Covid patients in hospitals is close to its April peak”.

She added: “NHS Ayrshire and Arran is currently at 96% of its Covid capacity, and three other health boards – Borders, Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lanarkshire, are above 60% of their capacity.

“We can expect to see significantly increased pressure on the NHS over the course of this month.”

Ms Sturgeon stressed that “NHS services are coping”, but warned that “without further intervention, we could breach inpatient Covid capacity within three or four weeks”.

On Monday, there were 26,626 Covid-19 patients in English hospitals, a weekly rise of more than 30%. 

This number is 40% higher than the peak in the first wave in April.

Earlier, the four chief medical officers of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland met and jointly recommended the Covid-19 alert level should be moved from Level 4 to 5 – the highest setting – for the first time.

They warned that due to the rapid rise in cases there was a risk of the NHS “in several areas” being overwhelmed over the next 21 days if no further action was taken.

Vulnerable people previously told to shield during the first lockdown until August 1, will be told once again not to go to work if it cannot be done at home.

Ms Sturgeon said: “If you were shielding and you cannot work from home, our clear advice now is that you should not go into work at all. The Chief Medical Officer is writing to everyone who falls into this category, and his letter will count as a fit note for those who need it.”

Ms Sturgeon insisted that” schools in Scotland have been low-risk environments for Covid” but said the Scottish Government was left with no choice but to keep classrooms closed until at least February 1. The decision will be reviewed on January 18 as to whether schools can re-open on February 1. 

The First Minister warned that the “overall level of community transmission is simply too high” and there is “still significant uncertainty about the impact of the new variant on transmission amongst young people” – meaning that keeping schools open “is not consistent with a safety-first approach”. 

She added: “We therefore have to adopt a cautious approach at this stage
“Most pupils will be learning online for at least the rest of the month. I know that remote learning presents significant challenges for teachers, schools, parents and young people, and we will work to support children and parents throughout this.”

The First Minister indicated that primary schools and nurseries could re-open before secondary pupils are allowed back into classrooms, once it is deemed safe to do so.

Teaching unions, which have been calling for schools to be closed, have welcomed the decision.

EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said: “There was already heightened concern from teachers in Level 4 areas around school safety and the surge in infection levels, driven by the new variant, will have compounded those concerns especially as it seems clear that children can be as easily infected as anyone by the new strain, with subsequent transmission also occurring.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon puts Scotland back into ‘stay at home’ lockdown

“Given that social distancing amongst pupils is physically impossible in crowded classrooms, moving to remote learning is the correct decision, therefore, if we are to successfully drive down community infection levels.  

“Suppressing the virus is key to school buildings safely re-opening.”

The First Minister also indicated that work will be carried out to investigate whether “it will be possible to vaccinate school staff” without compromising the current priority list for the jags.

Mr Flanagan added: “Whilst the education system is better prepared to deliver education remotely than during the first lockdown, challenges remain and we need to ensure that all pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can access learning on an equitable basis.

“We have raised with the Scottish Government the question of prioritising vaccination of school staff as a mechanism to allow school buildings to reopen for all pupils.”