James O'Brien 10am - 1pm
Face masks to remain law in Scotland until Easter Monday
30 March 2022, 16:03
Face masks on public transport and in other indoor settings will remain as a legal Covid measure in Scotland for another three weeks, Nicola Sturgeon has announced - dashing business hopes the law would be dropped immediately.
Scotland's First Minister told MSPs that from April 18, Easter Monday, the use of masks will become guidance rather than law - but with daily infection levels at record highs it was "common sense" to remove the restriction in a "phased manner".
She said there is "cautious optimism" that the latest wave of the virus, which has seen one in 11 Scots infected and hospitals under huge strain, may have peaked.
From Monday it will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face covering in places of worship or while attending a marriage ceremony, a civil partnership registration, a funeral service or commemorative event.
The wider legal requirement for wearing face masks - which applies to shops, public transport and some other indoor settings - will then be converted to guidance two weeks later on April 18, the day before the school Easter holidays end.
However the move was slammed by Scottish Concervative MSPs, and by licenced trade businesses who had wanted the removal of the masks law to be more rapid.
Nicola Sturgeon said: "This phased approach strikes a sensible balance between our desire to remove this one remaining legal measure and the common sense need for continued caution - not least for the sake of the NHS - while this wave of infection subsides.
"I recognise that face coverings are an inconvenience. However, given all the sacrifice of the past two years and in view of the current pressure on the NHS, I believe the vast majority of people will accept that for a further two weeks this is a proportionate precautionary measure while we pass the peak of this latest wave.
"It also provides some further protection to those who are most at risk from the virus."
But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said Scotland's case rate being higher than other parts of the UK showed that Nicola Sturgeon's "strategy is clearly failing."
He said: "She is keeping restrictions in place here in Scotland weeks after they have been removed elsewhere. We believe that anyone who wants to keep wearing a face mask should do so, but it should be down to individual choice as it is in other parts of the UK.
"We should leave it up to people and businesses to decide what is best for them based on public health advice - Nicola Sturgeon has to start trusting the people of Scotland."
Ms Sturgeon accused him of being "seriously out of step with the vast majority of people."
She added: "For a couple of weeks more while we see this wave of infection peak and start to fall I think that is a sensible thing to do."
Ms Sturgeon was herself pictured without a mask at a memorial service for Prince Philip on Tuesday, but when that was raised by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, she insisted that she wore one on the train and "abided by the rules" while in England - something, she said "the Tories find hard to understand."
The Scottish Licenced Trade Association said it would have set a better example for Ms Sturgeon to have worm a face covering, adding that it was "bitterly disappointing" the changes had been delayed in Scotland.
Managing director Colin Wilkinson said the pause would ultimately make little difference as "the lack of use of face coverings is already clearly evident in many settings".
And the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said the "prolonging of Covid-19 rules" might make Scotland a less attractive tourist destination.
However Ms Sturgeon stressed the statistics meant the threat level from the pandemic is currently at "medium" ad numbers are still "exceptionally high."
Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that face mask requirements will be removed in schools from April 18.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie pushed the First Minister on testing, which is due to come to an end for most people from the end of next month.
Ms Baillie asked about the future of testing for people who are on the shielding list and for testing in schools.
Ms Sturgeon replied: "After the population-wide testing programme ceases in its current form, testing will be used to ensure those who would benefit from antiviral treatment - and that is still being offered on a fairly restricted basis but will expand as more antiviral treatments become available - get speedy access to that treatment."
On schools, the First Minister said guidance will continue to be developed but she stressed the importance of bringing down case numbers in schools and wider society to limit staff and pupil absences.
General Secretary of teachers' union, the Educational Institute for Scotland, Larry Flanagan said the continued availability of regular, free, Lateral Flow Testing in schools remained essential in schools.
"Replacing tests with advice to "stay home if you have any symptoms" is likely to lead to increased absence as staff and pupils err on the side of caution," he said.
"Given the continuing high rates of Covid absence, this will put schools under even greater pressure. Ending LFT availability as we approach the exam season in Secondary schools, where significant Covid outbreaks within a school could be devastating for our young people, is even more nonsensical."
On the planned removal of face-covering regulations in schools and across wider society, Mr Flanagan said: "The EIS believes that the use of face coverings has played an important role in protecting school staff and students and their families throughout the pandemic.
"It is important that, in our schools as well as more widely, people should be supported in continuing to wear face coverings should they choose to do so."