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Retailers have said they cannot be expected to police the reintroduction of mandatory mask wearing in shops in England from Tuesday because of the potential threat of abuse for their staff.
Richard Walker, the boss of the Iceland grocery chain, said he was supportive of the change in mask policy introduced in response to the Omicron variant, but said: “My store colleagues can’t be expected to police those who refuse.”
The Association of Convenience Stores, which represents thousands of independent shopkeepers, said its members were concerned about potential abuse when asking customers to mask up.
A spokesperson, Chris Noice, said: “The first response from retailers was that this would lead to a lot of abuse from people refusing to wear face coverings. There could be an issue as there is a bit more of a backlash around Covid regulations than there has been in the past.
“We know from previous lockdowns that reminding people about face coverings and social distancing is a big trigger for abuse and [store workers] are hesitant about challenging people.”
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, which represents most big retailers, said: “It is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm’s way, and enforcement of face coverings must remain the duty of the authorities.”
Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “It’s vital that [shop owners] feel supported by government at every level and by the police, if necessary.
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“We do hope that customers will recognise, like they did during previous restrictions, the government’s new guidelines when visiting their local independent shops. We’re urging shoppers to make sure they show respect to the shop owners and staff of every business they go to.”
Retailers said they expected to be ready for the new set-up as they had already begun sending out masks for staff and posters communicating the new rules in time for Tuesday. Only those workers dealing directly with shoppers are expected to have to wear face coverings, with those in storerooms and warehouses exempt.
Full guidance published on Monday afternoon said that all those entering shops, shopping centres, banks and public transport over the age of 11 must wear a face covering. Those adults who do not comply face an immediate £100 fine with penalties rising to £6,400 for repeat offences, in line with the system operated last year.
A spokesperson for the police said that enforcement should not necessarily mean involvement by officers, adding that businesses and local authorities would be expected to resolve the majority of incidents.
Retailers were told on Monday afternoon that other measures to mitigate the spread of the virus in public places, such as social distancing markers and clear plastic screens, would not be reintroduced.
The shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, said the government must be “absolutely clear” that it was a legal requirement in England for shoppers to wear face coverings in order to reduce problems for those working in retail outlets.
Paddy Lillis, Usdaw’s general secretary, said the government was wrong to have eased the rules on protective measures in shops in July, when it told the public they could decide for themselves when and where to wear a face covering in England. Face coverings have remained mandatory in Wales and Scotland in shops and on public transport.
“This flip-flopping on basic and sensible Covid measures and the different rules across the UK create confusion, reduce compliance and can lead to conflict,” Lillis said.
He urged the public to wear masks to protect themselves and those working in stores and added: “The government must be clear and consistent on it being mandatory and that shopworkers are not expected to enforce the law on face coverings.”
The British Independent Retailers Association, another trade body for local stores, welcomed the latest measures. Andrew Goodacre, its chief executive, said: “We support the wearing of face coverings in shops in England and we are pleased that a decision has been made to keep everyone safe and stop the spread of this new variant.
“Our members are now well used to these measures and we now have time to implement them again. Fortunately, indie retailers followed our advice and left measures such as Perspex screens in place. We now hope that the general public will be as responsible as the shop owners and staff and wear face coverings without any objections.”