Nicola Sturgeon has warned the spread of coronavirus is now no less “serious and severe” a problem in the Highlands than it is in the central belt.
The first minister said transmission levels are “unacceptably high” in the north as health chiefs confirmed that a mutant strain is on the rise in the region.
They were speaking after NHS Highland revealed on Sunday that staff and residents had been affected by outbreaks at two independent care homes in Invergordon.
Highland had recorded relatively low coronavirus case numbers until the end of 2020, but there were 601 between January 2 and January 8, with 67 more confirmed on Monday.
At 186.8 cases per 100,000 people, the health board area remained the lowest on the mainland last week, but was not far from the 204.1 in Lothian or 234.8 in Fife.
Asked about the region at her daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Ms Sturgeon said: “The situation in Highland, as it is elsewhere in the country, is serious and severe, with transmission at unacceptably high levels.
“And we have to work to get those transmission levels down in Highland, just as we do in the central belt or the borders.
“The only places where transmission is not at that high level, although, as we saw in Shetland last week, we can’t be complacent here, is in our island communities.
“That is why it is really important we don’t have people travelling to and from there for non-essential purposes, so that we are not risking taking the virus there.”
New variant ‘seeded widely across Scotland’
Dr Gregor Smith, the chief medical officer in Scotland, confirmed that a recently identified variant of the virus is partly to blame.
“There is no area in Scotland just now that can afford to be complacent about what we’re faced with,” he said.
“Because we know that the new variant of concern is seeded widely across Scotland, that none of the mainland health board areas are immune to that fact, and once it begins to exert its effect within these communities it spreads very, very quickly.
“That’s what we’ve seen in some of the Highland communities, particularly round about Inverness, in particular, and some of the other more dense communities within Highland as well.
“I’m afraid it comes as no surprise to me that we have the rising cases that we have seen in Highland and across more rural areas of Scotland in recent times.”
At the briefing, Ms Sturgeon said that the number of patients in hospital across Scotland with Covid-19 is now “quite a bit above” the April peak.
She said that 1,664 people hospital confirmed to have the virus, and 126 of them were in intensive care, an increase of three.