Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday night admitted Scotland’s Freedom Day could be postponed again, after two more major health boards were pushed to “breaking point” by a coronavirus surge and NHS staff shortages.

The First Minister said that her timetable for easing rules "was not set in stone" after almost 4,000 daily cases were reported on Wednesday, dashing hopes that a recent rise in cases was on the decline.

Her downcast comments signalled a major shift in tone since last week, when Ms Sturgeon insisted she was optimistic that a nationwide move to Level 0 on July 19, before major legal restrictions are lifted on Aug 9, would go ahead as planned.

The SNP was accused of "dithering" and being “caught like rabbits in the headlights” over recent weeks as Scotland became Europe’s coronavirus hotspot.

Opposition parties demanded that tough self-isolation rules (which mean hundreds of fully vaccinated NHS workers have been forced to miss work) were urgently scrapped.

NHS Lanarkshire was forced to cancel non-emergency operations and diagnostic tests at University Hospital Wishaw, admitting its staff were "struggling to cope". NHS Grampian also said it had been left with no other option than to cancel operations, saying Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin were at full capacity.

The drastic move by the health boards, responsible for more than 1.2 million people, followed elective operations at Raigmore Hospital, the largest in the Highlands, being axed and doctors’ leaders warning that high numbers of staff being forced to self-isolate was contributing to the crisis.

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‘Hard decisions’

Ms Sturgeon admitted cases were "much higher than we want them to be".

She added: "My biggest concern right now is that even though we are seeing a weakening of the link between cases and hospitalisations, if we have a high number of cases even a lower proportion of those cases ending up in hospital can put pressure on our NHS.

"To set dates in stone while we still face that virus would not in my view be responsible. My job is to take hard decisions that get us as safely as possible to that end point."

The doubts over the planned move to Level 0, which was originally been due to go ahead on June 28 before an earlier delay, came as: a significant rise in daily cases was reported, with 3,799 people testing positive; the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 rose more steeply that at any point in almost six months; and senior Scottish ministers were accused of going missing during the crisis, with several on holiday and the Health Secretary forced to defend taking time off and visiting the Harry Potter movie studios near London

Contact tracing failing

New figures have also revealed that Scotland’s contact tracing system was buckling under the strain of the outbreak, and is now falling short of World Health Organisation (WHO) minimum standards. 

Currently, anyone who is deemed a close contact of someone who tests positive for Covid-19 is told to self-isolate for 10 days. On average, around 2,700 NHS staff, just under one in 50 workers, are currently missing work each day for Covid-19-related reasons.

Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the latest wave was threatening to overwhelm essential services and called for self-isolation rules to change urgently.

“If the SNP don’t act now, wards will be closed, operations cancelled, care service will stop, bins won’t be collected, and the police won’t be on the front line to keep us safe,” he said.

“We’ve seen the impact on Raigmore Hospital and other hospitals across the country. As it seems the connection between the virus and hospitalisation and risk of death has been broken, the nature of the pandemic has changed once again.  

‘Rabbit in headlights’

“But the SNP Government are caught like rabbits in the headlights, dithering about what to do next. The current position is unsustainable. The growth of the virus needs to be cut and the self-isolation rules need to change.”

Wednesday’s total daily cases was up almost 1,500 on the previous day. The number of people in hospital has also increased, despite the vaccination programme making Covid-19 a far less deadly disease.

There were 377 people in hospital on Wednesday, up 41 on the previous day’s total in the highest daily increase since January. There were 35 in intensive care, the highest since mid-March.

On Wednesday, Heather Knox, the chief executive of NHS Lanarkshire, said "combined pressures" of high numbers of A&E pressures, Covid-19 patients and staffing pressures due to staff self isolating, had made "difficult decisions" impossible to avoid.

She added: "Unfortunately, we have had to cancel a number of planned surgeries at University Hospital Wishaw for the rest of this week. This is not a decision we take lightly and I would like to apologise for any upset caused.”

Failure to control Covid

Jackie Baillie, health spokeswoman for Scottish Labour, said the move was a “direct result” of SNP’s failure to control the pandemic.

She added: “This is an incredibly worrying situation. With NHS Lanarkshire at breaking point, Humza Yousaf simply must wake up and take action.

“It’s time the SNP woke up to the disaster unfolding on their watch and accelerated the vaccine programme to protect the Scottish people.”

Humza Yousaf MSP Health Secretary listens during the First Minister's Questions

Credit: Fraser Bremner/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “These claims are simply not accurate, and it is misleading to suggest the NHS is on the verge of collapse.

“We recognise the additional pressure NHS staff are facing as they work tirelessly to respond to the pandemic whilst continuing to provide vital treatment and safe patient care. We are in daily contact with boards facing the greatest challenges and are monitoring the situation closely.

“We have allocated an additional £380 million to Health Boards to help with costs arising from the pandemic. This comes on top of the £1.7 billion already provided to Health Boards and Health and Social Care Partnerships last year.

“While the increase in NHS staff absences over recent weeks is significantly lower than previous phases of the pandemic, this reflects the overall increase in infection rates across the population, and it is a reminder that each of us needs to continue doing all we can to slow the spread of the virus."

Contact tracing ‘disarray’

Nicola Sturgeon was on Wednesday urged to come clean that Scotland’s contact tracing system is "in disarray", after an official report found it has now fallen well below the international benchmark for stopping Covid-19 spreading, writes Simon Johnson, The Telegraph’s Scottish Political Editor. 

Public Health Scotland (PHS) said that only 28.2 per cent of people who tested positive last week were interviewed within 24 hours by Test and Protect about their movements and close contacts.

In more than a quarter (26.8 per cent) of the cases, it took at least three days before all the close contacts were identified and interviewed.

The average number of primary contacts identified for each case was only two, down from six in May and the lowest figure ever recorded despite the easing of lockdown restrictions.

The figures undermined Ms Sturgeon’s insistence last week that the system was "working well" as Scotland registered a record number of Covid-19 cases and six of Europe’s 10 top virus hotspots.

Humza Yousaf insisted at the weekend that the WHO target of dealing with 80 per cent of close contacts within 72 hours was still being met but the PHS report confirmed that last week this figure dropped to 73.2 per cent.

Revised figures for the week ending June 27 show that the picture was even worse, with almost 35 per cent of cases taking over 72 hours to close.

In an effort to tackle the huge backlog, contact tracing teams have been ordered to prioritise "high risk" cases and rely on alerting more people by text message rather than calls.

Interviewers are also asking virus carriers fewer questions about their contacts. 

NHS Grampian warned that the increase in cases meant it would not be able to trace the contacts of everyone who tests positive.

Annie Wells, the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Health Secretary, said: "It is clear that Scotland’s Test and Protect system is completely overwhelmed as a result of the recent surge in Covid cases.

"That is all too typical of this SNP Government trying to continue to pretend everything is fine, rather than trying to address the serious problems the Test and Protect system is facing."

Willie Rennie said: "Test and Protect has been engulfed by this latest wave of the virus. It’s just not meeting basic international standards."

Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman said: “The Tories are just making themselves sound ridiculous. The First Minister has been at her desk today in St Andrews House leading the fight against Covid as she has done since the start of the crisis.”