KEY workers in critical roles in Scotland can now avoid self-isolation after close contact with someone who has coronavirus under strict new rules aimed at combating staff shortages. 

Nicola Sturgeon said it is "essential that lifeline services and critical national infrastructure are maintained" but stressed the new measures are "very limited". 

The First Minister made the announcement amid concerns over supermarket shortages and supply issues, with shoppers urged not to panic buy.

But union leaders raised concerns the move could lead to a spike in cases, while business leaders said it did not go far enough.

The Scottish Government said employers can apply to exempt those who work in critical roles where staff shortages are in danger of putting essential services, such as health and social care, transport and the provision of food supplies at risk.

Exemptions will only be granted for staff who voluntarily agree not to self-isolate.

Strict conditions will also apply. Staff must be double-vaccinated and in receipt of their second dose at least two weeks previously. 

They will also require to have a negative PCR test and to agree to undertake daily lateral flow tests.

Supermarket workers may qualify in "limited circumstances", the Scottish Government said, such as a store "needing to close because of staff isolating and in an area where there is not an alternative supermarket for people to shop at".

Applications can be made via the Scottish Government website.

Exemptions will be made on a temporary basis and last only for as long as there is an immediate risk to business or service continuity.

Ms Sturgeon said: “It is essential that lifeline services and critical national infrastructure are maintained and we are implementing these changes now - ahead of possible changes to self-isolation rules for close contacts that may apply more generally in future - to ensure staff shortages do not put key services at risk.

“We have seen significant staff shortages in a small number of organisations in recent days and we have worked with them to protect services. 

"Applications for exemptions are being considered from today and we will consider applications as they come in.

“Clinical evidence tells us we can safely and effectively release some critical staff from self-isolation, with appropriate safeguards. 

"However, this is a very limited change at this stage, to be applied on a case by case basis and only where absolutely necessary.

“We will not allow key services to be threatened by staff shortages but equally we must continue to protect public health.”

Covid-19 cases in Scotland spiked early in the summer before beginning to fall in recent weeks.

The latest statistics show six coronavirus deaths and 1,505 new cases were recorded in the previous 24 hours.

A total of 502 people were in hospital on Thursday with recently confirmed Covid-19, up 14 on the previous day, with 57 patients in intensive care, down one.

James O'Connell, Unite industrial officer, criticised the latest move. 

He said: "Unite’s members, particularly in those vulnerable sectors such as health and social care, are extremely worried that we could see a new spike in hospital admissions, and it is the staff on the frontline having to deal with this."

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said the change did not go for enough, adding: “Even for those sectors who will qualify for this critical worker scheme, the criteria and process for applying for exemption is overly restrictive and requires a lot of evidence."

But a spokesman for the Scottish Retail Consortium said it was a "step forward in what is a fast-moving situation".

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross also said it was a "cautious step in the right direction".

He said: “However, many questions must be clarified by the SNP if these changes are to have the right effect. "

Scottish Labour's Jackie Baillie said the Government's "sticking plaster solution raises as many questions as answers".

Former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "If the safeguards are right and the risk of the spread of the virus is low then this would be a sensible step."