NICOLA Sturgeon has been warned that easing coronavirus restrictions in Scotland will add “fuel to the fire” for already under-pressure hospitals.

Increasing numbers of cases, coupled with staff absences due to self-isolation and school holidays, has led to services being under strain in recent days – with three hospitals declaring a rare ‘Code Black’ alert.

Now, senior medics are warning that Covid hospitalisations will keep on rising so long as infections continue - with more social mixing not helping matters. 

David Connell, a consultant respiratory physician for NHS Tayside, told Times Radio how Ninewells Hospital in Dundee is the busiest it has ever been, and is experiencing “significant pressures”.

READ MORE: Coronavirus cases show signs of 'levelling off' as Sturgeon feels 'more optimistic'

He said: “You can put water on them and that might be a lockdown or more vaccines or you can add more fuel to the fire and that will be more social mixing.

“What we’re not going to be seeing over the next few weeks is fast enough vaccination.

“It is not happening as fast as infections are happening so there is the risk that this will just carry on until we see more people infected and more people vaccinated but that may be weeks away.

“So, it might get worse and certainly in terms of hospitalisations we won’t see the effects of the cases for another seven to ten days.

“They were going up seven to ten days ago so we will expect our hospitalisations to carry on rising.”

We previously reported how Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin all issued a ‘code black’ status alert in recent days.

And last night it was confirmed that operations at hospitals in NHS Lothian and Lanarkshire have also been suspended.

Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, told STV’s Scotland Tonight: “I don’t think we’re seeing the peak yet.

“I think what we’re seeing is a slight reduction in the level of testing that we would expect, given that infection is so high right now.

“It feels as if we’re taking the brakes off just a little too soon . . . We don’t know what the long-term disabilities will be but it feels to me to be caution to the wind actually, when we’re so close to having population immunity through vaccination.”

Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon told a Covid briefing in Edinburgh that cases are showing early signs that they may be "levelling off" but it is too early to "throw caution to the wind", Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister said week on week infection numbers indicate that there "appears to be a slowdown in the growth in cases".

She said: "While there will always be daily fluctuations as we can see, and that’s why we look most closely at seven day averages – looking at the figures reported over the past few days, we can see the suggestion that the recent surge in cases may be, to some extent, levelling off now.

"Today’s reported figure, for example, represents 1,432 fewer cases than were reported on this day last week.

"Similarly, if we look at the seven day average, there does appear to be a slowdown in the rise in positive cases."

The data, published at 2pm today, shows that there have been a total of 20,993 Covid infections detected in Scotland over the past seven days - down from 21,746 during the previous week.

READ MORE: Two more Scottish hospitals confirm rare ‘Code Black’ alert amid rising Covid cases

However, Ms Sturgeon stressed that "this is a moment for care and caution", adding that it was "always possible to proceed some changes but not all".

The First Minister is due to confirm plans next week for easing restrictions further on July 19, when Scotland as a whole is scheduled to move into Level Zero.

"We have to think carefully about the steps we take at this juncture," said Ms Sturgeon, noting that Scotland was following a different path to England where all restrictions - including basic mitigations such as requirements for facemasks - will be scrapped from July 19.

Ms Sturgeon said the "apparent slowdown in cases has given me a bit more optimism", but stressed that Level Zero in Scotland "doesn't mean the end of all restrictions".

In Scotland, a potential end to physical distancing and capacity limits indoors is not due to take effect until August 9 at the earliest, but advice on wearing face coverings in shops and on public transport is expected to remain in place.

It comes after a string of record-breaking daily case numbers over recent weeks which has been partly blamed on the virus spreading indoors as people gathered in pubs and homes to watch the football.

The spike in cases is now feeding through into a growth in hospital admissions, with 401 patients currently being treated for Covid - including 38 in intensive care.

This has coincided with A&E departments returning to pre-pandemic attendance levels but with many more people than normal presenting with complex conditions which require admission, while at the same time departments are battling to clear waiting lists for elective procedures and the rise in virus prevalence is leading to increased staff absences due to infections or self-isolation.