Face mask use in Scotland could stay through winter, says minister

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A senior Scottish minister has forecast that face coverings will remain in use through the winter, and perhaps for longer, to continue suppressing the Covid-19 virus.

John Swinney, Scotland’s minister for Covid strategy, said face coverings would remain “a significant part of our lives” and predicted many people could copy the practice in some east Asian countries of routinely wearing them outdoors.

Swinney was speaking as a large proportion of Scotland’s Covid restrictions were lifted at midnight on Monday 9 August, with the country entering a “beyond level 0” phase.

Nightclubs and other hospitality businesses such as music venues can reopen at full capacity. Sports stadiums will be limited to 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 outside, but can admit larger crowds with permission from local councils.

However, face coverings will remain mandatory on public transport and in public places in Scotland, with school pupils expected to continue wearing them indoors for up to six weeks once schools return this month. Teachers must remain 1 metre apart from each other, with office workers expected to work from home.

On Sunday, Scotland’s health minister, Humza Yousaf, cautioned that there was no guarantee another lockdown would not be needed later this year, if a new variant emerged. He said case numbers were also likely to rise after restrictions were lifted on Monday.

But the government’s modelling suggested that hospitals would cope with any increases in serious illnesses. “We would expect cases to rise as people interact more, potentially in bigger numbers and also when the schools return. There’s perhaps some sense of an artificial break when it’s the summer holidays,” Yousaf said.

UK cases

The latest NHS Scotland data showed the numbers of those with Covid-19 in hospital fell last Friday to 367 patients, down from a recent peak of 543, with 54 people in intensive care. The seven-day average of infections has fallen to about 1,200 cases a day.

Swinney, who is also Scotland’s deputy first minister, told BBC Radio Scotland the devolved government had made a “rational and considered judgment” about which restrictions to lift, thanks largely on the “extraordinary” successes of the vaccination programme. By Sunday, 90% of adults had had one dose, and nearly 75% had had two. Nearly 100% of over-60s have now had both doses.

There was some confusion last week about whether dancers in nightclubs would be expected to wear face masks on the dancefloor. Swinney said ministers decided eventually to treat dancing as a form of exercise.

“We still have measures in place to provide protection, for example through the use of face coverings, which we consider to be a significant obstacle to the circulation of the virus,” he said.

“When I have travelled in Asia, there’s a common use of face coverings by individuals to protect others and protect themselves, and it becomes part of the cultural activity of particular countries.

“I don’t know if that will happen here but some people will feel safer as a consequence of wearing face coverings. But certainly over the course of the winter I would expect face coverings will remain a significant part of our lives.”

For now, Sturgeon’s routine of providing three weekly official briefings on the pandemic had been dropped, he added. “We’re looking at this data, several times a day, to make sure that we remain very very aware of any changes and developments,” he said.

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