First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was left with “no alternative” but to put mainland Scotland back into full lockdown in a bid to protect lives across the country.
From midnight, people across most of Scotland should stay at home unless it is for “essential” care, shopping, exercise or being part of an extended household.
Schools will also remain shut until at least February 1 and all workers who can do their job from home must do so.
Opposition parties agreed the latest evidence backs up the need to return to a strict, March-style lockdown, although schools proved a contentious issue with claims they were facing a return “almost to square one”.
Ms Sturgeon said the decision to put most of the country back into lockdown was taken because the government feels there is “no alternative”.
She added: “Right now the only alternative is greater loss of life and the potential for our NHS to be overwhelmed and speed of action at this point of time is the most important factor of all.”
Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader at Holyrood, said the increase in infection rate and the transmissability of the new variant gives “grave cause for concern”.
However, Ms Davidson said parents have been left having to “rip up childcare plans”, “negotiate with their employers” and worry about their “children’s fractured education”.
She added that online learning had been applied “inconsistently” across the country, with fears the attainment gap could stretch wider.
Ms Davidson said: “The stark warnings from education experts, opposition parties and even the Children’s and Young People’s Commissioner have gone unheeded for too long.
“The government has had months to prepare for this possibility and instead, schools are facing a return almost to square one and without the necessary guidance and resources they need to provide equal access to high-quality education.”
The first minister said the decision her government “most agonised over” was the further closure of schools for the majority of pupils, stating the issue had been “contentious” in recent weeks.
However, in her opening statement, Ms Sturgeon said the impact of the new variant of the virus on young people was not yet clear.
She added that in the next few days, Education Secretary John Swinney will set out to MSPs the steps being taken to ensure the provision of online education is “where we want it to be”.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said there would be a “heavy price to pay” in terms of loss of education, poor mental health, access to health services and growing inequalities but agreed the evidence supports the return of stricter measures.
He added it would be a “tragedy” if the NHS was to be overwhelmed and more lives lost when the “protective coat of the vaccine is within touching distance”.
Mr Rennie said his party is in favour of schools returning when the scientific evidence is clearer that it is “safe to do so” and supports the earlier return of nurseries and primary schools compared to secondary schools if the advice backs that up.
The MSP also stressed the need to make childcare more readily available for workers.
Pledge to help parents
Ms Sturgeon said her government would do “everything it can” to help parents and would look at what further practical support could be provided.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard asked the first minister if there was a plan to encourage all businesses to furlough all working parents to take the time off to support their children.
She responded that businesses were being asked to “regularly scrutinise” their own operations and assure that those expected to be at work are only those who cannot be expected to do their job at home.
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie pressed on the need to accelerate the vaccination for teachers and other school staff, stating there must be “meaningful progress” before the review date of January 18.
Ms Sturgeon said vaccinating key groups would give “greater assurance” to teachers but that the government had “clear expert clinical advice” about the need to prioritise those at most risk of getting the virus and dying.
Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith, who represents the mid-Scotland and Fife region, called for “complete clarity” following the decision to extend the closure of schools, with a review to take place in mid-January.
The former teacher said: “We need confirmation that online learning will be up to speed and that pupils have all the resources available to them where necessary, including digital technology.
“Any closure of schools is deeply regrettable given the extensive challenges which young people have already encountered during the pandemic, particularly those from more vulnerable backgrounds, and the obvious disruption it causes to families.
“From what the first minister has confirmed is the clinical advice, however, it seems that the risks of the higher rates of transmission in this new strain are too great and therefore the decision has been made to close schools for the next few weeks.”
The first minister said the country was now in a “race between the vaccine and the virus”, adding the Scottish Government will do everything it can to speed up distribution.
More than 100,000 people across Scotland have now received their first dose of the vaccine.
However, criticism has been levelled at the lack of daily data on the numbers being vaccinated as currently the figures are only being released weekly.
Ms Davidson said: “The first minister rightly said we are in a race between the vaccine and the virus.
“We can only know if we are winning that race if she publishes daily vaccine figures alongside the daily infection figures and we hope the commitment to do so will be made as soon as possible.”
Ms Sturgeon said the government does intend to break down the numbers vaccinated into categories and “hopefully” by health board.
She added she would consider the frequency of data publication on vaccinations but is mindful of not putting too many “burdens” on those working on data collection publication.
Need to act ‘quickly and decisively’
The latest figures show there were 1,905 positive cases reported in the last 24 hours, representing 15% of the 13,810 tests carried out across the country.
According to modelling by the Scottish Government, taking no action could result in Covid-19 capacity in hospitals being overrun within “three or four weeks”.
The first minister said estimates show Scotland’s cases are about four weeks behind London and the south-east of England with the country required to act “quickly and decisively” to avert such a situation.
She added that the evidence is now “compelling” that the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible than previously circulating strains and may add as much as 0.7 to the R number.