MOST of Scotland will go back into lockdown from Boxing Day and planned easing of restrictions at Christmas have been scrapped due to concerns over the rapid spread of a new strain of Covid-19.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday said Christmas Day would go ahead – but pleaded with people to only use the flexibility for visiting others if they “really, truly need to”.

She acknowledged the measures were harsh and said announcing it “made her want to cry” – but said it was necessary to prevent the virus spreading.

A total of 17 cases of the new strain of coronavirus – which evidence suggest is up to 70% more transmissible – have been detected so far in Scotland. There are fears it may be driving faster transmission of the virus in some hospitals and care homes.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon 'desperately sorry' to announce new Scottish lockdown

Measures had been set to ease across the UK between December 23-27, but now household mixing will only be allowed on Christmas Day.

A ban on travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK – except for essential purposes – will remain, with Sturgeon saying she will speak to police and transport operators to see how this measure can be ­“strengthened”.

All of mainland Scotland will enter level 4 – the toughest of the tiers of restrictions – for three weeks from one minute after midnight on Boxing Day morning. Non-essential shops will close as will cafes, restaurants and hairdressers.

Island communities including ­Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will move to level 3.

Schools will open for key workers as normal, but the majority of pupils will not return on January 11, with online learning until at least January 18.

READ MORE: Police say enforcement of Scottish travel ban will be 'last resort'

Sturgeon said the action was ­being taken to prevent more of the new strain entering Scotland from parts of the UK where it is circulating widely and to stop it being spread any ­further in Scotland.

She said: “The five-day flexibility from the 23 to 27 December was planned to recognise the impact of loneliness and the difficulty I know we all feel leaving loved ones alone over Christmas.

“However earlier this week we ­advised people should meet indoors with other households – if at all – on no more than one day over the five-day period.

“Given the concern we now have about this new strain, we now intend to change the law to allow indoor mixing in a bubble on Christmas Day only. Our advice is still not to meet indoors even on Christmas Day with other households if you can possibly avoid it.”

She added: “Standing here saying this actually it makes me want to cry ... as I know how harsh this sounds. I know how unfair it is.

“But this virus is unfair – it doesn’t care about Christmas, it doesn’t care about anything other than spreading itself as far and wide as possible. And it has just become, unfortunately, a lot better at doing that.”

The new strain of the virus is the “most serious and potentially dangerous juncture” faced since the start of the pandemic, she said. And without acting firmly, it could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed and more people dying from the virus.

However the mutant strain is not thought to cause more severe illness and scientists believe the vaccines that have been developed should be able to deal with it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced yesterday the South East of England will be moved into a new tier 4 – effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson announces Christmas plans cancelled for millions in England

Those in tier 4 cannot mix ­indoors with anyone not from their household.

The rest of England will also see the Christmas “bubble” policy – ­allowing up to three household to meet up over the holiday period – severely curtailed, applying on Christmas Day only.

Johnson said: “Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.

“Yes Christmas this year will be ­different, very different. We’re ­sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so that we can see them at ­future Christmases.”

The whole of Wales has now been placed under lockdown with festive plans cancelled for all but Christmas Day. Tighter restrictions due to take effect from December 28 were brought forward due to concerns about the new strain of the virus.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The situation is incredibly serious. I cannot overstate this.

“We cannot expose people to the risk of this new, more virulent strain of coronavirus.”

Scotland currently has the lowest Covid case rate in the UK, with 112.6 cases per 100,000 of the population.

This compares with 571.7 in Wales, 219.6 in England and 174.9 in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday, official figures showed Scotland recorded another 41 deaths from coronavirus and 572 positive tests in the previous 24 hours, the test positivity rate fell from 4.2% to 4.0%.