The UK government ended days of speculation and declared on Tuesday that wearing a face mask or face covering will become mandatory in shops across England from July 24, as part of efforts to control the spread of coronavirus as the country eases out of lockdown.
The enforcement powers for the new policy will be handed to the police and anyone failing to wear a face covering while shopping will be subject to a fine of up to 100 pounds, or 50 pounds if paid speedily within 14 days.
“There is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from coronavirus,” a 10 Downing Street spokesperson said.
“The Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] has been clear that people should be wearing face coverings in shops and we will make this mandatory from July 24,” the spokesperson said. While shop workers will be encouraged to prompt customers to comply, they will not be expected to enforce the rules, allaying retail union concerns about their involvement in the enforcement process.
The British Retail Consortium said it hoped the announcement “will make shoppers feel even more confident about returning to the High Street”. The decision will be fully outlined by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock in a House of Commons statement following days of conflicting statements from Cabinet ministers. The confirmation follows Johnson’s intervention over the issue on Monday, when he called on people to wear masks while the government considers enforcement measures.
“I think people should be wearing [face masks] in shops. And, in terms of how we do that, whether we make it mandatory or not, we’ll be looking at the guidance ”we’ll be seeing a little bit more in the next few days,” he had said.
The Opposition Labour Party, which has been in favour of stricter enforcement of face coverings as a measure to curb the transmission of coronavirus, had called for more clarity after some contrary messages on compulsory face coverings.
“The government has been slow and muddled again over face coverings,” said Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth.”Given the government’s own guidance issued on May 11 advised in favour of face masks, many will ask why yet again have ministers been slow in making a decision in this pandemic, and why it’ll take another 11 days before these new guidelines to come into force,” he said.
London mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been campaigning for the move for some time, called the government’s “confused communications” on the subject a “disgrace”. “We can’t afford to wait another day and the government should bring this policy in immediately ? further delay risks lives,” he urged.
At present, it is mandatory to wear face coverings only on public transport in most regions of the UK, but there has been a growing debate around a wider mandatory approach as Britain undergoes a phased return to business as usual after the lockdown imposed on March 23.
In Scotland, face masks in shops have been mandatory since July 10 and while shoppers in Wales and Northern Ireland are not currently required to wear them, both regions have said this will be kept under review. In line with the rules on public transport, children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt from face coverings in shops.
Many scientists have been keen on a rethink over face masks as the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on the issue were also updated in favour of their use in enclosed spaces to curb the transmission of the deadly virus.
UK-based Indian-origin Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was among those who had warned that the UK was lagging behind other countries in the mandatory use of face masks to prevent the rapid spread of coronavirus.
“Just treat it as another item of clothing that is part of the new normal and wear it whenever you cannot socially distance safely. It is the right thing to do, and a small price to pay, to help keep infections down and the economy open in the pandemic,” he said.
The latest move will bring England into line not only with Scotland but also other major European nations like Spain, Italy and Germany.