Speaking on BBC Scotland, Humza Yousaf said the legal restriction could not be kept in place “a minute longer than it has to be”. However, there will still be “very strong guidance” to wear face masks and he has “great faith” in the vast majority of Scots to follow this.
His comments come after the First Minister announced the legal requirement of wearing face coverings in public settings and public transport across Scotland is to end today (Easter Monday).
This decision was delayed twice because of record Covid levels and high hospital admissions.
On why Scotland has now reached the point to scrap masks, Mr Yousaf told BBC’s The Sunday Show: “There’s a number of reasons. First and foremost, based on the data, I think we can safely say we’re exiting the current wave and it’s been pretty relentless over the last four to five months given the emergence of Omicron and the emergence of BA.2.
"But I think we can say, based on the ONS data, based on the case data, based on now beginning to see reductions in hospital occupancy for those with Covid – although the number for those are still very high – we are taking the right decision by removing that final legal requirement but of course replacing it with very strong guidance.”
The Health secretary said the recovery of the NHS is going to take “years” following the “biggest shock” from the pandemic.
Ways to grow the NHS workforce, including an £18 billion investment for NHS and social care staffing, are being looked at to build back the service, according to the minister.
Following the announcement of scrapping the legal requirement to wear face coverings, the Scottish Government issued guidance for people to continue to wear a face covering in certain situations such as indoor spaces and public transport. However, this will now be down to personal decisions.
The Scottish Hospitality Group has welcomed the move to scrap face coverings, however, said it was “unfortunate” the move was not made sooner for businesses to benefit from the Easter Holidays.
A Scottish Hospitality Group spokesperson said: “We could argue all day on the rights or wrongs, the evidence etc, however now we need to draw a line and move forward.
"Hospitality will always continue to remain a safe place to socialise, and through “best practice” many businesses will continue with cleaning processes etc.
"Now is a time where we want to start seeing posters up in our bars about open mic nights, karaoke, quizzes etc.
“Everyone will be made to feel welcome right across hospitality in Scotland, and we openly welcome the freedom of choice where staff and customers choose to continue wearing face coverings.
"It is unfortunate that it didn’t take effect from today with it being a bank holiday.”
A weekly Covid-19 survey produced by the Office for National Statistics found around one in every 17 people in Scotland had Covid-19 in the week up to April 9 had the virus, a drop on recent weeks.
Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said she does not think Scotland will see a dramatic spike in Covid cases as a result of the scrapping of masks.
The professor said: “The reason for that is that face coverings is just one of multiple measures. We’ve gradually eased restrictions. One of the things we’ve seen which makes the biggest difference is people working from home and you can see even though that’s no longer legally required far fewer people are back in the office.
"I think we’re certainly not going to see a big spike in infection because of this – I expect a lot of people, particularly the more vulnerable, will keep wearing them.
"A third of people, according to a UCL Covid study, are worried about getting Covid and if you look at older people their rates are far higher, so I think for those people it’s very important they continue to wear a face covering as it protects them.”
Talking about his faith in the public to continue to wear masks when “appropriate”, Mr Yousaf said: “I think the vast majority will.
"There will be some that won’t and we have to accept that that is the case. But you have to remember it’s been made very clear that we can’t keep a legal restriction in place for a minute longer than it has to be and we have to be proportionate when it comes to the law but I’ve got great faith in the vast majority of the Scottish public.”
Professor Bauld said it was more “proportionate” to scrap face now when there is a drop in infections and hospital admissions than when Scotland was facing a rise in Covid cases.
She added: “The cautionary note I would make is that if we have a new variant, we would expect Governments around the world to be reintroducing further measures.”
Professor Bauld predicts Scotland will have a “good Spring and Summer”, however, said it is unclear when a shift may occur.
The testing scheme is also coming to an end as a result of pressures from the UK Government scrapping the programme, meaning people will no longer be able to get free lateral flow tests.
Testing will still be made available for those in high risk settings including NHS and care home staff. People are still eligible to have a test if they have symptoms until the end of April.
Professor Bauld said if the Scottish Government had a “money tree” she would welcome rolling out free testing for the foreseeable future.
However, due to current demands on public expenditure, the professor said this was not possible, adding it was “reasonable” for the Scottish Government to prioritise free testing.