Public health experts and retail chiefs are urging the government to look again at making face coverings mandatory in shops to encourage people back to the high street and stop the spread of coronavirus.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove insisted yesterday that masks would not become “mandatory” but suggested it was “basic good manners” to wear one.
The government’s messaging has been criticised as “confusing”, with a lack of clear rules and UK mask use still lagging far behind others countries despite mounting evidence that they do make a difference in halting Covid-19.
As recently as April health secretary Matt Hancock was actively discouraging the wearing of masks, suggesting that they were ineffective and that public uptake of the practice would create shortages for NHS workers.
“When the pandemic was declared by the WHO, 70 countries already required their citizens to wear masks in enclosed places or strongly recommended it – now it’s 120,” Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC.
“Part of the reason for that is that the science has moved on in that there are new studies, and new reviews. The second thing is that the WHO themselves commissioned research to look at it, essentially bringing together all the studies, and they changed their advice.”
Mask-wearing was made mandatory in Scotland last week but there are still no clear rules in England. Professor Bauld said that “three or four months ago” some of her colleagues in the UK were unsure of the evidenced supporting face coverings, but that “now some of those that were quite uncertain some time ago are now definitely saying that new evidence suggests that we should be wearing these”.
James Daunt, the former Waterstones boss who now runs bookshop chain Barnes and Noble, said a “firm direction” from the government would encourage people to take up masks and could help build confidence.
On whether requiring their wearing would give people the confidence to return to shops, Mr Daunt said: “I don’t think it’s a huge factor, but I also think if it reassures people it’s a perfectly sensible measure to take.”
He said mask wearing would “become normalised” with time but warned that retail workers should not be asked to “police” any enforcement.
“I think it’s certainly about changing attitudes but clearly if there is a firm direction that masks should be worn then the vast, vast majority of people will,” he said.
“But I definitely do not think shop workers should be the police of it – that would not be right. Because there are a tiny, tiny minority of people who will be confrontational over it and it is not the position of shop workers to enter into that situation.
“We would indeed not ask our shop workers to confront someone who was stealing from us – we would ask them to call the police.
“So we shouldn’t put ourselves in confrontational positions, but I think we can as retailers, if we are requested to do so, clearly tell everyone it’s a sensible thing to do.”
Boris Johnson appeared on Friday wearing a mask for the first time, telling reporters: “We need to be stricter in insisting that people wear face coverings in confined places.” He said the government was “looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings in shops, for instance”.
But his deputy Mr Gove suggested on Sunday that the government was unlikely to take real action, adding: “I don’t think mandatory, no, but I would encourage people to wear face masks when they are inside, in an environment where they might be mixing with others and where the ventilation might not be as good as it might. I think it is basic good manners, courtesy, consideration, to wear a face mask.”
Some influential right-wingers close to the Conservative Party have complained about proposed mandatory mask-wearing and other lockdown measures, including in the government-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper which the prime minister has regularly written for.
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But speaking to the BBC on Monday morning Professor Bauld said: “In a retail environment what we’d want to see is customers wearing them, or even the visors, or having the perspex screens – so thinking about the whole setting, not simply masks or not.
“From a behavioural science perspective I think it’s jolly confusing the messaging we’ve seen in the last few days ... it’s much better to be clear and consistent and we need to do a few things: you need to lead by example. So leaders need to wear them, that’s been highly variable across the world. You need to explain to the public why it’s being recommended or required.
“And I think the thing about requiring it is it basically just says to people that this is expected, and even if enforcement is not heavy-handed, and I don’t think it needs to be in this case, the fact that it’s required makes a difference. Just observing locally here [Scotland] I’d say about one in five people were wearing them in my local supermarket, but when I went there yesterday only one person wasn’t wearing one, and they may have had a reason. Requiring them just gives that little extra nudge.”