Scotland is making "steady progress back to normal life", Nicola Sturgeon has insisted, despite pushing back the date for ditching laws for people to wear face coverings on public transport and in some settings.
The Scottish first minister had previously signalled this would move from being a legal requirement to being guidance on Monday, March 21st.
However, she told members of the Scottish parliament that due to the “current spike” in cases, ministers had agreed it was “prudent” for this measure to remain in place.
While Ms Sturgeon said she knew this would be "disappointing" she urged people to "be patient for a little while longer".
The approach differs from Ireland where an end to compulsory mask-wearing in almost all settings came into effect on February 28th following advice to the Government from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). Mask-wearing in Ireland only remains mandatory in medical settings.
The first minister gave her latest Covid-19 update to Holyrood as new figures showed 38,770 new cases of the virus have been confirmed since Saturday March 12th.
The number of coronavirus patients in hospital has also continued to rise to the highest level for more than a year.
There were 1,996 people in hospital on Monday with recently confirmed Covid-19, up 191 on the previous day, with 33 in intensive care, up six.
Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that the legal requirement for businesses to keep customers' details in case these are needed for contact tracing will end as planned on Monday, March 21st.
But speaking about requirements on the wearing of face coverings, she said: “Given the current spike in case numbers, we consider it prudent to retain this requirement in regulation for a further short period.”
The first minister added: “Ensuring continued widespread use of face coverings will provide some additional protection – particularly for the most vulnerable – at a time when the risk of infection is very high, and it may help us get over this spike more quickly.”
The legal requirement will be reviewed again in two weeks’ time, she added, with Ms Sturgeon saying the “expectation” was that it will become guidance rather than the law in “early April”.
She went on to tell MSPs that advice on testing would also change next month, saying that from April 18th “we will no longer advise people without symptoms to test twice weekly”.
The first minister added: “With the exception of health and care settings, the advice to test regularly will also end from April 18 for workplaces, and for early learning and childcare settings, mainstream and special schools, and universities and colleges.”
People who are a close contact of someone who is confirmed as having Covid will continue to be advised to do daily lateral flow tests until the end of April, Ms Sturgeon added.
And those with symptoms of the virus will be advised to get a PCR test up until that date.
After that, Ms Sturgeon said: “Our intention is that from the end of April all routine population-wide testing will end, including for those who have symptoms.
“Contact tracing will end at this point too – although people with symptoms of respiratory illness will be advised to stay at home.”
Test sites will close at the end of next month, with the first minister saying from May 1st testing will be used instead “on a targeted basis” and for for surveillance purposes.
Speaking about the changes she added: “Today marks steady progress back to normal life and a more sustainable way of managing this virus.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said there was always a chance Covid cases would rise after restrictions were eased, as they were earlier this month, and that should not be a reason to keep the requirement for face coverings.
“It’s true that case numbers are higher now than any of us would like, but Covid cases were always going to rise when restrictions were eased,” he said.
“We can’t get complacent with Covid but we have to move forward. We can’t stay stuck with Covid rules forever.”
The Tory leader asked: “Why won’t the first minister trust the Scottish public to take the steps they think are right to protect themselves and their families?”
He went on to push for a firm date for the ending of the face coverings requirement, as well as what criteria would need to be met for the rule to be scrapped.
The first minister stressed that, apart from the face covering rule, “every single legal measure” will have been lifted.
“Given the spike we’re seeing in cases right now and the very high risk of infection, this helps us protect each other,” she said.
“In particular, during this spike, it helps us to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and I think it will help us to get this spike under control more quickly than might otherwise be the case.”
The first minister added: “I think that is very much in the spirit of solidarity and mutual concern for each other that has characterised the public’s response to this pandemic over the past two years.”
Much of the public, Ms Sturgeon went on to say, would “welcome this precautionary move” given the high case rates. –PA