Scotland could see a “dramatic rise” in coronavirus cases over an uncertain winter period, Deputy First Minister John Swinney has warned.
He said the “real risk” of a surge in cases “remains very significant”.
Mr Swinney, also the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Recovery Secretary, was speaking in the wake of the arrival of the Omicron variant in Scotland and as the upcoming festive period is likely to see more people socialising indoors.
Speaking at Holyrood, he said: “As we look towards an uncertain winter period, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over.
“We must all continue to take the appropriate steps to keep ourselves, our loved ones and out communities safe.”
He insisted the country is in a “stronger position” in the fight against the virus than it had been a year ago, with the overwhelming majority of people now vaccinated against Covid.
But with concerns that the Omicron variant may be more resistant to vaccines, and that the effectiveness of jags may be waning in some people, the booster programme has been accelerated.
Despite the success of the vaccination programme, Mr Swinney warned: “The real risk that the coming months could see a dramatic rise in cases remains very significant, especially with the identification of the Omicron variant and with the fact we are moving into the winter period, with less ability for people to spend more time out of doors.”
Action must be taken to “reduce the opportunities the virus has to spread”, he added, urging people to “significantly step-up and increase compliance with existing procedures”, including taking more regular tests and working from home where possible.
Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane warned that both the NHS and social care services are facing “huge workforce crises and challenges” – with “innovative” measures needed to tackle the problem.
He said: “We should be adopting medical technology solutions at scale to manage patient care short of hospital stays, reduce hospital readmission rates, improve patient satisfaction and better patient outcomes.
“We need a new model, a strategic innovation model, so our NHS can pilot home-grown, cutting edge solutions.”
Labour’s Jackie Baillie said the arrival of Omicron in Scotland means the “immediate focus must be on resourcing the Test and Protect system” of coronavirus contact tracers.
She also said action is needed to urgently speed up the rollout of booster vaccines, with greater use of mobile and walk-in jab centres.
She said better workforce planning is needed for the NHS “because there is insufficient staffing”, along with increased bed numbers.
She told Mr Swinney: “The current sticking plaster approach will not get us through this.”
Liberal Democrat Beatrice Wishart, meanwhile, raised the issue of long Covid, saying there are now 99,000 people in Scotland suffering from the condition.