The Scottish government has advised people to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces, in a break from the UK-wide approach to tackling the spread of coronavirus.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, said it could be beneficial for people to wear non-medical coverings in places where social distancing was difficult, such as on public transport and in shops.
But the measure would not be compulsory, Sturgeon said, in part because there was no conclusive evidence that wearing face coverings can substantially stop the spread of coronavirus in the community.
“The evidence on the use of face coverings is limited, but there may be some benefit in wearing a facial covering when you leave the house and enter enclosed spaces,” Sturgeon said on Tuesday, at a daily Scottish government briefing in Edinburgh.
The UK government appeared to be taken by surprise by Sturgeon’s move. Downing Street said on Tuesday that it was yet to make a decision on face coverings for residents in England. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have submitted evidence to ministers, and the government would announce a decision as soon as it was made, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said, according to the PA Media news agency.
At the UK government’s daily briefing later, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser Angela McLean said SAGE had concluded there was “weak evidence of a small effect” in which face masks could prevent an infected person passing coronavirus on to someone else.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the government planned to increase domestic production of face coverings. “I can confirm Lord Agnew, the joint Cabinet Office and Treasury minister, has launched a domestic effort to ensure we produce just such masks,” Gove told the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Sturgeon said she was not advising that people wear medical-grade masks. Instead, a Scottish government statement said that people could wear coverings “made of cloth or other textiles and through which you can breathe, for example a scarf.” Sturgeon also stressed that social distancing rules continued to apply and said people wearing masks were not “invincible.”
The four UK nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have largely taken a coordinated approach to tackling coronavirus. But Scotland, which has its own legal system and has more devolved powers than the other nations, has diverged from the UK approach at some stages. Gatherings over 500 people were banned in Scotland on 12 March, more than a week before restrictions were imposed in the rest of the UK.
The Downing Street spokesperson acknowledged Sturgeon’s different approach.”There have been points in the response so far where announcements have been made at ever so slightly different times. By and large we have moved forward with a single four-nations approach. I think the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all said they hope that continues to be the case and we would agree with that.”
But Sturgeon is not alone in carving out a different path. First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford told The Guardian that the Welsh Assembly could lift the country’s lockdown earlier than the rest of the UK if needed. “We have the power to do it, definitely. I’d rather we did it together,” he said.
“The Coronavirus Act does respect devolution. It puts the solution in our own hands and we have already done things differently in a range of different matters where that’s been right for us.”