BUSINESS leaders have labelled delays to lifting rules on face mask requirements a “bitter disappointment” warning the move risks putting “recovery into reverse gear again”.

Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that the removal of a legal requirement to wear face coverings including public transport, intended to take place on Monday, will now not happen until April.

The First Minister said it was "prudent" to mandate mask wearing in settings such as public transport, shops and hospitality given concerns around the rapid spread of the BA.2 sublineage of Omicron.

But business chiefs have criticised the delay and called for more information on what the evidence for decision-making.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said: “Scottish businesses were looking forward to returning to greater normality and the decision to delay the removal of all remaining Covid-19 restrictions will come as a bitter disappointment.

“Further delay will put Scotland’s recovery into reverse gear again, create confusion, dent business confidence, putting the buffers on economic growth.

“The Scottish Government’s strategic framework recognises that the success of the vaccine rollout minimises the risk of serious illness and should enable Scotland’s businesses and individuals to begin living and working with increasingly normality alongside the virus.”

She added: “Businesses cannot continue to operate with the start-stop lever being pulled just weeks apart, with no clear confirmation as to what the triggers driving decision making are.

“Businesses have invested millions throughout the course of the pandemic to keep their customers and employees safe and with Scotland falling behind other parts of the UK when it comes to the removal of restrictions, putting trust back in individuals and businesses to manage the health and safety of workplace environments and behave sensibly is becoming increasingly overdue.

“The Scottish Government must commit to the removal of all remaining restrictions as soon as possible whilst providing greater detail on what triggers sit behind the decision-making process to protect consumer and business confidence in the meantime.”

Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland’s policy chair, added: “Businesses in Scotland face far fewer restrictions now than they did earlier in the pandemic. And today the First Minister outlined a timeline to lift many of the remaining rules, albeit slower than many would like.

“However, the impression that Scotland has a ‘first-in, last-out’ approach to Covid restrictions frustrates many in business. At a time when debt-laden firms are facing dramatic fuel and utility hikes, operators are looking for Ministers to inject confidence, not seed doubt.”

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross said: “It’s bad enough that the First Minister has gone back on her word to businesses and the public by extending the facemask requirement.

“But, worse still, she could not even guarantee that this would only be for a further two weeks.

“That’s more unacceptable uncertainty for businesses and the public, who have already sacrificed so much over the last two years.

“Covid has not gone away but we have learned to live with it. The vaccine has been a game-changer.

“Yes, case rates at the moment are higher than any of us would like but Covid cases were always going to rise as restrictions were eased.

“We can’t stay stuck with Covid rules forever. That is why it’s such a blow for households and businesses that the First Minister has decided to keep facemask rules in place.

“The First Minister must trust the Scottish public to take the steps they think are right to protect themselves and their families. We can’t go on with this wait-and-see approach.”

Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon said: "Given the current spike in case numbers, we consider it prudent to retain this requirement in regulation for a further short period.

"I know this will be disappointing for businesses and service providers such as day care services.

"However, ensuring continued widespread use of face coverings will provide some additional protection - particularly for the most vulnerable - at a time when the risk of infection is very high, and it may help us get over this spike more quickly."