Nicola Sturgeon asks employees to start hybrid working and eases face mask rules after Omicron ebbs
Scottish office workers will be allowed to return to their desks from Monday 31 January after Nicola Sturgeon lifted strict guidance urging non-essential staff to work from home.
The first minister asked employers, in an update to MSPs at Holyrood, to begin a phased return to work by introducing hybrid working next week after a continuing decline in Omicron variant cases in Scotland.
Sturgeon also announced an easing of face mask rules from Friday, to allow people not wearing face coverings, such as church ministers, to stand 1 metre away from other people rather than 2 metres. Adults will also no longer be required to wear face coverings for parties or indoor events for children under five from Friday.
School pupils must still wear face coverings in class, however, despite calls from the Conservatives and others for that regulation to be lifted. Sturgeon said cases numbers among children under 15 had grown 41% in Scotland since the return of schools, despite significant reductions in all other age groups.
Sturgeon has faced pressure from businesses and opposition parties to lift Scotland’s stricter Covid measures, which heavily hit spending in shops, bars and restaurants during the Christmas and Hogmanay holidays.
While the first minister said the tougher rules were proportionate and had helped suppress the Omicron wave far more effectively than in England, business leaders estimated they had cut spending by £1bn and were unnecessarily strict.
Sturgeon said: “We would not expect to see a wholesale return to the office next week – indeed, given that the level of infection, though falling, remains high, a mass return at this stage is likely to set progress back. But we know there are many benefits to both employees and employers, and to the economy as a whole, in at least a partial return to the office at this stage.”
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, said Sturgeon was still unnecessarily controlling what people could do. “While some people will still want to work from home, why doesn’t the first minister leave that decision up to employers and workers?” he asked. “What does she think this means for the many businesses who rely on workers being in the office and back in our town and city centres?”
Sturgeon told MSPs that while coronavirus was unpredictable, the latest data showed the Omicron surge had clearly subsided. On Monday strict caps on numbers for outdoor events, a ban on nightclubs and requirements for face coverings, 1-metre distancing and table service in bars were lifted.
In the week to 21 January, 704 people were admitted to hospital with Covid, compared with 1,026 in the previous week. The number of Covid-positive people in intensive care had fallen to from 49 from 59 people last Tuesday.