Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure to scrap the legal requirement to wear face coverings in Scotland, after UK ministers said masks are to become a matter of “personal choice” south of the border.
While the First Minister has said face coverings in shops and on public transport will probably be "required" after Scotland’s Freedom Day, planned for Aug 9, she is yet to decide whether this will be backed up by law.
Senior figures within Scotland’s hospitality industry called for the requirement to be scrapped along with other legal restrictions, claiming masks were harming trade and are less necessary as more people become fully vaccinated.
Currently, Scots can be fined if they breach a legal obligation to wear masks in a large number of public settings such as shops, buses and churches and while not seated in pubs, cafes and restaurants.
However, the Scottish government said it would consult with businesses about “baseline measures” that will remain in place from mid-August, which have yet to be decided.
Face coverings could become a matter of strong guidance, which the Scottish public is asked to comply with, rather than a legal requirement.
The distinction between a government request and a law is significant because businesses will be far less inclined to mandate the use of masks for customers if they are not legally required.
“We are all waiting to hear for certain what the new rules will be,” a source at a major UK retailer told The Telegraph.
“If masks are mandatory, we will stick to that. But if they aren’t it becomes much harder for our staff to enforce.
“I imagine that if masks are advisory only, we might still politely ask customers to wear one, but we wouldn’t push it any further than that.”
Currently, Scots who refuse to wear face masks can be handed a £60 fine by police.
The legal requirement will remain in force once Scotland moves to Level 0, currently scheduled for July 19. However, it could be scrapped after a lifting of most remaining legal restrictions planned for Aug 9.
Robert Jenrick, the UK Housing Secretary, told the BBC that in England people will have to exercise “good judgement” and “personal responsibility” around things like mask wearing once restrictions are eased in England, likely on July 19.
Boris Johnson is expected to confirm that date (and an end to the compulsory wearing of masks) within days and declare that a link between Covid-19 infections and hospital admissions has been broken.
However, Ms Sturgeon has come under pressure due to soaring coronavirus rates north of the border, with Scotland currently one of the world’s hotspots for case numbers.
A spokesman for the Scottish government said which “baseline measures” would remain in force had not yet been decided but that “social and economic” factors would be taken into account as well as public health.
Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said venues such as nightclubs, which should be allowed to open for the first time in 18 months in August, would struggle if the legal requirement to wear face coverings when not seated remained in force.
He warned that the mask rules were already putting people off going to pubs.
"Would you go into a nightclub where you had to wear a face covering? No, so we would definitely push back on that side of things,” he said.
“It should be down to customer choice because it’ll be down to them to look after their own health as more people get vaccinated.
"If you want to have a barbeque, you can go into anybody’s house and you don’t have to social distance or wear face coverings. But to go out for a pint you have to wear a mask and social distance, so people just stay home.”
As it stands, rules are set to diverge for at least a few weeks between England and Scotland, with train passengers potentially free to ditch face coverings when south of the border from July 19, but then being legally obliged to put them on at Berwick or Gretna.
Mr Jenrick said he wanted the whole UK “to move as one” in easing rules. He said: “We are going to work with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to try and be as co-ordinated as possible.
"Cases are slightly different in each of the four nations but certainly in England, our view is that things are looking positive for July 19."
Ms Sturgeon has so far refused to confirm that Scotland will move to Level 0 on July 19 as planned with one expert last week saying it would be “incredibly irresponsible” to stick to her timetable if case numbers are still rising.
Face masks poll
However, Christine Tait-Burkard, an assistant professor of zoonotic viruses at Edinburgh University, said she thought the planned easing this month could "definitely" still go ahead due to high vaccination and low hospitalisation levels.
Asked whether masks would be a legal requirement after Aug 9, a spokesman for the Scottish government said: “Decisions on baseline measures have not yet been made, and we will engage with sectors to gain their views.
“We will continue to use evidence and judgement to ensure all our decisions are necessary and proportionate. All changes to legal restrictions will be scrutinised by parliament.
"There will still be some ongoing need for face coverings, for example on public transport and in retail, and we will be working with sectors to establish baseline mitigations and produce further guidance by end of July.”