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Coronavirus / Sturgeon announces changes to Covid-19 rules

Legal requirement for face coverings downgraded to guidance

FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that advice to wear face coverings on public transport and in some indoor settings will be downgraded from a legal requirement to voluntary guidance from 21 March.

Setting out aspects of Scotland’s new “plan for living with Covid” at Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon, Sturgeon also said the certification scheme requiring some venues and events to check the vaccination or testing status of attendees will come to an end from Monday (28 February).

Nicola Sturgeon setting out updated Covid-19 guidance at Holyrood on Tuesday.

The Scottish Government continues to take a more cautious approach towards Covid-19 than the UK Government, with Sturgeon warning that “we must remain vigilant and prepared” in case more severe variants emerge.

While high levels of the virus continue to circulate, she said widespread vaccine coverage and improved antiviral treatments had significantly reduced the extent of severe illness and enabled the further removal of legally binding restrictions.

“This new approach will see us resort much less – hopefully not at all – to legally imposed protective measures,” Sturgeon said. “Instead, we will rely predominantly on vaccines, treatments, and sensible public health behaviours and adaptations.”

Last week the JCVI approved the use of Covid-19 vaccines in all children aged 5-11, and Sturgeon said appointments for that age group would be available from mid March.

Most will be in the evenings, at weekends and during the Easter school holidays to enable parents and carers to accompany children to their appointments.

A fourth “booster” dose will also be made available to care home residents, those aged 75 and over and anyone over 12 who is immunosuppressed. Those will be offered six months after those individuals’ last dose.

Sturgeon expressed “frustration” at the UK Government over its intention to dismantle much of the Covid-19 testing infrastructure and for failing to provide clarity on how funding arrangements would work to enable Scotland to “retain a robust testing system capable of providing strong resilience”.

“It is unfortunately highly likely that this virus will continue to mutate and present us with new and potentially more harmful variants in future,” the First Minister told parliament.

While it seeks further clarity from the UK Government, Sturgeon said further detail of its future testing system would be set out next month. It will include “extensive PCR sampling and processing capacity” and, while welcoming the continuation of the weekly ONS survey, said it was “essential it continues at scale”.

On Tuesday Scotland recorded 6,427 new cases, of which 83 were in Shetland. A total of 1,060 people were in hospital with Covid-19, 25 of whom were in intensive care, and a further 18 deaths with Covid-19 were recorded.

Regarding the Covid certification scheme, which the Liberal Democrats again urged her to abolish altogether, Sturgeon said the app it relies on will remain operational “so any business that wishes to continue [using it] on a voluntary basis to reassure customers will be able to do so”.

Assuming there are “no adverse developments” the legal requirement to wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and venues will end on 21 March.

Sturgeon said this was a recognition that the government was “duty-bound to remove legally imposed restrictions” if they were “disproportionate”, but public health advice would still recommend wearing face coverings in those settings “as part of a range of behaviours to manage Covid”.

There will be a gradual move from “mass asymptomatic” testing of the population to a “more targeted system” focused on surveillance, the ability to rapidly detect and respond to new variants, and managing outbreaks effectively in settings such as care homes and hospitals.

“In March we will publish a detailed transition plan for test-and-protect, describing the scale of infrastructure that will remain in place for the longer term,” Sturgeon told MSPs.

In the meantime anyone who has Covid symptoms should seek a PCR test, with access remaining free of charge. People are also advised to take regular lateral flow tests (LFTs), which will also remain free at present.

“We consider it important that they should remain free of charge for any circumstance in which the government recommends testing – a principle we will seek to uphold,” she added.

From Monday people will also be advised to take lateral flow tests slightly less regularly – at least twice a week, and in particular when going to a crowded place or mixing with someone who is clinically vulnerable, instead of the current guidance to ‘flow’ before going to socialise with anyone.

People who test positive for Covid-19 will also be asked to continue to observe the recommended self-isolation period until further notice.