Scotland will be plunged back into a national coronavirus lockdown from midnight this evening, Nicola Sturgeon announced this afternoon.
The SNP leader said the new crackdown, lasting all of January, will include a legally enforceable stay-at-home rule.
Exercise and essential journeys will be the only reasons why people will be allowed to leave their homes.
The planned reopening of schools on January 18 is also being pushed back to February 1 at the earliest while workers are being instructed to work from home wherever possible.
Rules on outdoor gatherings will be tightened to allow a maximum of just two people from two households to meet outdoors.
Meanwhile, places fo worship will be closed from this Friday but weddings and funerals will still be allowed to go ahead.
A maximum of 20 people will be allowed to attend funerals and a maximum of five people will be allowed to attend weddings.
Ms Sturgeon said the tough new curbs are necessary because of the ‘steeply rising’ rate of infections north of the border as she warned the lockdown could be extended beyond January if necessary.
The measures effectively mean a return to the restrictions seen during the first UK-wide lockdown which was imposed at the end of March last year.
All of mainland Scotland is already placed in the highest tier of Covid-19 rules but case numbers have prompted Ms Sturgeon to take more drastic action after 2,464 new cases were announced yesterday.
The move by Ms Sturgeon will inevitably prompt speculation that England could soon be forced to follow a similar path.
Ms Sturgeon set out the terms of the new lockdown in an address to a recalled Scottish Parliament.
It is just the fifth time ever that Holyrood has been recalled and the second time within the last four weeks after it sat on December 31 to consider Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal with the EU.
She said the situation facing Scotland is ‘extremely serious’ and that the spread of a mutant variant of the disease had struck a ‘massive blow’.
She warned that Scotland is seeing a ‘steeply rising trend of infections’ and that she is is ‘more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year’.
She said: ‘I can confirm now in summary that we have decided to introduce from midnight tonight for the duration of January a legal requirement to stay at home, except for essential purposes.
‘This is similar to the lockdown of March last year.’
All of mainland Scotland is currently in Protection Level 4 – the highest tier in the Scottish government’s current coronavirus rules system.
Level 4 restrictions ban separate households from mixing inside homes while a maximum of six people from two separate households are allowed to meet outdoors.
All pubs and restaurants have had to close apart from for takeaways and all non-essential shops have had to shut.
But Ms Sturgeon said the rise of the more infectious strain of the disease meant that ‘the current level 4 measures may not be sufficient to bring the R number back below 1’.
She said that as a result the country must accept a ‘return for a period to a situation much closer to the lockdown of last March’.
Ms Sturgeon said the new lockdown rules ‘will be in place for the whole of January’ and the Scottish Government will keep them ‘closely under review’.
But she said she ‘can’t at this stage rule out having to keep them in place longer, nor rule out making further changes’.
‘Nothing about the current situation is easy,’ she told MSPs.
Ms Sturgeon said the main plank of the latest lockdown strategy is to advise everyone to stay at home.
‘That is the single best way of staying safe,’ she said. ‘We consider that this stay at home message and advice is now so important that from tomorrow it will become law, just as it was in the lockdown last year.
‘This means it will only be permissible to leave home for an essential purpose. 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.’
Ms Sturgeon said the frequency of outdoor exercise will not be limited but outdoor gathering rules will be tightened.
Ms Sturgeon’s announcement of a new lockdown for Scotland will inevitably prompt speculation about whether Boris Johnson will follow suit in England
‘As of now, up to six people from two households are able to meet outdoors,’ she said.
‘Given the greater transmissibility of this new variant we consider it necessary to restrict that further.
‘From tomorrow a maximum of two people from up to two households will be able to meet outdoors. Children aged 11 and under will not be counted in that limit and they will also be able to play outdoors in larger groups including in organised gatherings.’
The Scottish First Minister said existing travel rules will continue as she urged everyone to ‘stay as close to home as possible’ and reiterated that no one is allowed to travel into or out of Scotland unless it is for an essential reason.
Ms Sturgeon said it was a matter of ‘real regret’ that places of worship will have to close from this Friday.
‘I know how devastating restrictions like these ones are and I give an assurance that we will not keep them in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary,’ she added.
On the issue of schools, Ms Sturgeon said the aim is to resume face-to-face learning from February 1 and that the return date will be reviewed in the middle of January.
Vulnerable children and the children of key workers will still be able to attend school in person.
‘There is no doubt at all that of all the difficult decisions we have had to take today this was the most difficult of all and its impact is of course the most severe,’ she said.
Ms Sturgeon compared the current situation to a running race between the mutant variant of the disease and the UK’s vaccination efforts.
She said she hoped the lockdown will give the vaccine the ‘time it needs to get ahead and ultimately win this race’.
‘I know that the next few weeks will be incredibly difficult and I am sorry to ask for further sacrifices after nine long months of them but these sacrifices are necessary,’ she argued.
‘The difference between now and last March is that with the help of vaccines we now have confidence that these sacrifices will pave the way to brighter days ahead.’