SCOTLAND has recorded the highest Covid case numbers yet during the pandemic but the First Minister said there are "grounds for optimism."

Nicola Sturgeon said the rapid surge in infections did not appear to be translating into a corresponding increase in hospital admissions.

Addressing MSPs during an emergency online briefing she said there would be no immediate change to the restrictions in place or advice given to the public.

However, she said the government was carefully weighing up the risks and benefits of reducing the self-isolation period to help alleviate widespread staff shortages.

Under the current rules in Scotland, those with a close contact who tests positive for Covid are required to isolate for ten days, even if they test negative.  In England the isolation period has been reduced to seven days.

She said: "We hope to reach decisions in the next week with any changes taking effect from January 5.

"We know that people can become can become infectious and test positive for the virus after seven days. In fact if we cast our minds back to the earlier part of the pandemic the incubation period used to be 14 days so it has already been shortened which has already introduced further risk.

"If we get that wrong, any benefit will be outweighed by faster spread of the virus."

A total of 15, 849 cases were reported yesterday, which represents 28.9% of all tests carried out.

READ MORE: Deputy First Minister urges Scots not to travel to England to take advantage of more lenient restrictions 

She said the much higher test positivity rate in recent days "may be partially explained" by people being more selective about when to go for a test over the Christmas period.

However she added: "This is by some margin the highest overall daily case number reported in the pandemic to date."

A total of 679 people are in hospital with Covid, 80 more than yesterday while 36 people are in intensive care, one fewer than yesterday. A further three deaths have been reported.

"It clear that the wave of Omicron that has been predicted is now rapidly developing", said the First Minister.

Omicron now account for 80% of all cases, and over the past week the number of reported cases of Covid has increased by 47%.

Nicola Sturgeon said that transmission rates were not yet fully evident, adding: "It is reasonable to assume therefore that we will continue to see steep increases in cases in the days and possibly weeks ahead."

However she said the current surge would be even higher "but for so many people following advice to cut down on social interactions in the run up to Christmas".

She said: "Given the speed and extent of transmission, now it is vital that we continue to take sensible precautions.

"It is encouraging that, at least until now, the rise in cases experienced over the past few weeks has not translated into a corresponding rise in hospital admissions or occupancy.

"On the contrary, the number of people in hospital with Covid has remained broadly stable."

READ MORE: PCR tests 'unavailable' across Scotland 

However, she said the numbers in hospital with the virus in England were "rising quite sharply" which could be an indicator of things to come in Scotland.

She said: "Of course, in terms of sheer numbers, the benefits of a lower rate of hospitalisation could be quickly cancelled out by the much higher case numbers."

She said a clearer picture would emerge in the next couple of weeks including the breakdown of patients who were in hospital due to Covid and those in hospital with other illness who also have the virus.

She said previous figures had indicated that around 70% of people in hospital with Covid were there because of the virus and not due to other health conditions.

Responding to reported shortages of PCR test appointments she said an administrative error had led to a reduction in slots but said Scotland and Wales were the only parts of the UK where there was availability and said staff shortages due to Covid would also be contributing.

She said the Scottish Government would also be allocating priority slots to essential workers including health and transport workers as well as those who are clinically vulnerable.

She said 75% of those who are eligible for a booster or third dose had now received one and the government hopes to reach a target of 80% by January 1 and added: "We definitely have enough capacity to meet the target."

The Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross reiterated his call for isolation times to be cut from 10 days to seven for those who test negative twice and for an end to household contacts having to isolate if they test negative.

He said the decision was continuing to harm businesses, who are suffering from widespread staff absentees caused by self-isolation requirements.

He said: "We’ve had the ground-breaking study showing that, while Omicrom is more transmissible, it’s also less severe.

“What more information does the First Minister need to take the step on self-isolation that we’ve been calling for for weeks?

“Businesses across Scotland are struggling - at what should be their busiest time of year - with both the impact of restrictions and the First Minister’s indecision on self-isolation rules.

In response, the First Minister said that while the evidence suggests that the hospitalisation rate associated with Omicron could be significantly lower than for other variants, she said a huge volume of cases could cancel out that effect.

She said that even the authors of those studies had cautioned against "getting carried away."

She said: "If we release people from isolation when they may still be infectious, yes it will relieve some of the pressure on the economy but that will be short-lived if the risks we take accelerate the virus."

She aknowledged that businesses were struggling with staff absences but said it was the virus, not the self-isolation rules that was the problem.

READ MORE: Will the self-isolation period reduce from 10 days to seven in Scotland?

She urged the public to contine to take precautions including reducing socialising, limiting contacts to three households, testing regularly, booking a booster and working from home where possible.

"This has been another difficult year - but despite these renewed challenges, I do believe 2022 will be better," she said.

The Scottish Government introduced new measures on Boxing Day which included one-metre physical distancing at large events, with limits of 100 people standing indoors, 200 people sitting indoors and 500 people outdoors.

New rules on social gatherings then came in on Monday, with meetings limited to three households at indoor and outdoor venues like bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and gyms.

Table service was also made a requirement at places where alcohol is served and nightclubs have been ordered to close their doors again for at least three weeks.

Scotland's new rules mean Hogmanay events will be cancelled, while the Scottish Premiership winter break has been brought forward to avoid staging football matches within the new limits on crowds. The current restrictions will remain in place until at least January 17.

The First Minister said the Scottish Government had allocated £375million to support businesses with £16million distributed to public transport providers, £27million given to the culture sector and £17million to the events sector.

A further £32million will be allocated to hospitality and lesiure with £10million give to those businesses "most severely impacted".

She said the government was also working with the sports sector to provide support and said the financial help being given to firms was proportionately higher in Scotland than in England or Northern Ireland and said money would start to flow to businesses as quickly as possible. She aknowledged that taxi firms had been particularly hard hit.

She said: "I know how difficult all of this is for businesses. But there simply isn't an easy trade-off between protecting health and protecting the economy."

Scotland’s Deputy First Minister has told New Year revellers planning to travel to England amid more relaxed Covid restrictions that this would be the “wrong course of action”.

John Swinney said while there is nothing to stop party-goers from heading south of the border, where nightclubs are still open, for their Hogmanay celebrations, this would go against the “spirit” of the regulations put in place by the Scottish Government.

Mr Swinney said the current set of restrictions would be reviewed on January 11, but warned that "people can see with their own eyes the galloping pace at which Omicron is moving through Scotland".

Nightclubs are also closed in Wales, and will be closed in Northern Ireland on New Year's Eve.