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Coronavirus: Mask rule in shops 'flashpoint for abuse' of staff

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·5-min read
A shopper wearing a face covering on Oxford Street, London, ahead of the announcement that it will soon be mandatory to wear a face covering in shops in England.
A shopper wearing a face covering on Oxford Street, London, ahead of the announcement that it will soon be mandatory to wear a face covering in shops in England.

Rules on wearing face coverings in shops may become a “flashpoint for abuse of staff,” a union has warned as the new coronavirus policy comes into force.

The public must now wear a mask or other face covering in shops, transport hubs, banks and cafes for takeaway food and drink under reforms introduced in England on Friday (24 July). There are exemptions however, including young children and those with conditions that make it difficult to wear a face covering.

The changes have sparked a row over who will enforce the measures, with retail and police leaders both arguing the other must take responsibility for ensuring the rules are followed.

How retailers will promote the new rules

Ministers, retailers and unions have all appealed directly to the public to comply as the measures take effect.

Health minister Matt Hancock said on Thursday everyone “must play their part in fighting this virus,” while retail workers’ union Usdaw’s general secretary Paddy Lillis urged mask-wearing to “support shopworkers.”

The government is also urging businesses themselves to take “reasonable steps” in encouraging everyday compliance. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said high street retailers would indeed play their part in “communicating” the policy to customers.

Some retailers including Sainsbury’s and Tesco will display posters in stores on the new rules. Masks will be on sale near the front of Tesco and Asda stores, which shoppers will be allowed to wear on entry before paying at the tills. Sainsbury’s will also have regular tannoy reminders.

Waitrose will have staff at the entrance reminding customers of the rule, and Tesco will be selling face coverings at shop entrances.

However, Sainsbury's and Costa Coffee said their staff will not challenge customers who aren’t wearing masks. Asda added that it is the "responsibility of the relevant authorities" to police customers who do not wear face coverings.

The police has said officers will not be patrolling premises and will be only issuing the £100 fines as a last resort.

Fears for staff safety as rules change

Yet there are fears that the new rules may “risk staff safety,” as Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady has warned.

Lillis said the changes could be a “flashpoint for abuse of staff,” and urged customers to treat workers with respect.

Unions worry some staff may be expected or feel pressured to tell shoppers to follow the rules, potentially sparking conflict and putting them at risk. O’Grady has urged firms to make clear it is not their role, and publish risk assessments for safeguarding staff from both abuse and uncovered customers.

READ MORE: A third of furloughed hotel and food staff ‘face redundancy’

Attacks on staff are already reported to have risen during the pandemic. Figures from Co-op Food show assaults have doubled and verbal abuse nearly tripled since the start of the year. More than 100 incidents involved people using COVID-19 as a threat, according to the supermarket.

Retailers and police resist enforcing rules

Such concerns, on top of legitimate reasons some shoppers won’t wear masks, mean many retailers will not police the rules. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl are among the companies which have made clear staff won’t challenge customers.

Leading supermarkets and unions agree enforcement is for the police. “It’s right that responsibility for enforcing the new rules and fines rests with the local police force,” said Tom Ironside of the BRC.

But police chiefs also appear wary about enforcement too, despite the government is warning breaches may result in £100 fines. “We will expect retailers to manage entry to their stores and compliance with the law while customers are inside, with police involvement as a last resort,” said Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), last week.

Kent’s Police Federation chair Neil Mennie told the BBC this week it was impractical for officers to be “wandering up and down the aisles looking for people that aren’t wearing masks.”

Growing support for face coverings

File photo dated 21/02/08 of an Asda store. The retailer's bosses have begun a Supreme Court equal pay fight with supermarket workers. More than 30,000 Asda store workers, most of whom are women, have brought equal pay claims after complaining that staff working in distribution depots unfairly get more money.
Asda expects customers to follow the rules on face coverings. Photo: PA

The lack of enthusiasm for enforcement suggests compliance will rely overwhelmingly on customers themselves.

Some retailers and police chiefs are optimistic. An Asda spokesperson said it was “confident [customers] will continue to show care and consideration” by following the rules. Mennie said he expected very few people to “put everybody at risk or behave stupidly,” and police to therefore only issue “a tiny handful” of fines.

The evidence is promising too. Official figures suggest face covering has continued to rise since being made mandatory on public transport, with 71% of people reporting wearing one when leaving the home.

Opinion polling released on Thursday showed 67% of Brits back the new rules, and 86% of Brits believed face coverings were important or essential in situations like shopping or public transport.

If compliance is high, firms hope it will boost customer numbers too. Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Business (FSB), said: "We hope that this development will give the public more confidence to go out and spend with their local small firms, which are in need of their support now more than ever.”