Scotland could be forced into another lockdown next winter if restrictions are relaxed too quickly this time, Nicola Sturgeon has insisted despite the vaccination programme already dramatically cutting deaths among the most vulnerable.
The First Minister said the “worst thing” the Scottish Government could do would be to lift the current rules too rapidly, as this would mean the virus "running out of control again" and risk sending the nation “back to square one”.
Although she reiterated that the vaccines have already reduced care home deaths, she warned that Scots could be forced to wear face masks and observe social distancing long after the roll-out is completed.
Prof Jason Leitch, Scotland's national clinical director, said there would also have to be severe restrictions on international travel "for some time."
The First Minister expressed her determination to continue with her Covid "elimination" strategy - to drive the virus down to very low levels - even if the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines means the number of Covid deaths and hospitalisations falls dramatically.
Watch: Nicola Sturgeon - Statistics strongly suggest vaccines are cutting virus death toll
But a senior public health expert said the plan was "near impossible" thanks to the UK's close links with the Continent and warned it would mean Scotland being cut off from the world for a prolonged period.
Dr Christine Tait-Bukard, a research fellow in the department of infection and immunity at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, said that "we just have to start to live with the virus" and the "reality" of it being so widespread across the world was that it is "here to stay."
She argued that vaccination makes this pragmatic approach possible, echoing Matt Hancock's intervention last weekend that he hoped vaccines and treatments will turn Covid into a disease we can "live with, like we do flu" by the end of the year.
— Chris Musson (@ChrisMusson) February 18, 2021Nicola Sturgeon asked about elimination aim after experts warn Zero Covid strategy not feasible (or poss desirable), and UK can't be compared to New Zealand.
FM: "Something been harder to do in Scotland than it is in a country like New Zealand doesn't make it impossible to do" https://t.co/u3ARMdrJJO
Ms Sturgeon's threat of another winter lockdown came the day after one of her handpicked Covid advisors said she should examine speeding up her plan for easing the current restrictions if she is being "driven by the data and not by dates."
Prof Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said "the numbers are looking really good" on the vaccines preventing death and serious illness and keeping people out of hospital.
Ms Sturgeon this week said that all Scots over 50 and the clinically vulnerable - who together account for 99 per cent of Covid fatalities - could all be vaccinated quicker than the early May deadline.
But her lockdown exit plan, being unveiled next week, expected to outline a much slower process for easing restrictions than happened last year.
Ms Sturgeon predicted she will come under pressure to lift restrictions more quickly but warned: "If it’s quick at the expense of sustainability, the danger is as we start to look at next winter again we will back in lockdown – and none of that’s going to be easy to achieve.”
"It may be even as we come out of lockdown there are some restrictions we need to live under for a longer period - face covering, stringent hygiene, some kind of physical distancing," she added.
But Dr Tait-Bukard told BBC Radio Scotland that elimination was "a very difficult strategy to pursue and in my opinion it's near impossible, just because we live in a very multi-cultural society and have very close links to the continent."
She added: "On the other hand, we are on a good way to having vaccinated a good proportion of the population and are making headway in increasing that.
"So potentially in my opinion we just have to start to live with the virus, carefully weighing out all the negatives but the reality of the virus being so widespread across the globe means that this virus is here to stay."
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?