Mandatory mask-wearing will protect shop assistants who can be up to 75% more likely to die of coronavirus than the general population, Matt Hancock has said.
The health secretary said the move to make face coverings mandatory for shoppers in England from 24 July would protect shopkeepers and reassure people when they are visiting the high street.
“We want to give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops,” he told the Commons. “Sales assistants, cashiers and security guards have suffered disproportionally in this crisis.”
The Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne said he feared having to wear masks would reduce confidence among shoppers and called the measure a “monstrous imposition”. “Nothing would make it less likely for me to go shopping than the thought of having to wear a mask,” he told the Commons.
Hancock said the death rate of sales assistants and cashiers is 75% higher among men and 60% higher among women than in the general population. “As we restore shopping so we must keep our shopkeepers safe,” he said.
Shops would have the power to refuse entry to customers who do not wear a mask and to call the police if shoppers refuse to comply. Fines of up to £100 can be issued but Hancock said it would be a “last resort” and that the government expected compliance.
“Wearing a face covering does not mean we can ignore the other measures so important in slowing the spread of the virus – washing hands and following the rules on social distancing,” he said.
“Just as the British people have acted so selflessly throughout this pandemic I have no doubt they will rise to this once more.”
Monday’s figures for coronavirus infections showed 530 new cases in the UK, down 90% since the peak, he said. “As a nation we have made huge strides in getting this virus, which has brought grief to so many, under control. We are not out of the woods yet, so let us all do our upmost to keep this virus under control,” he added.
While most MPs in the Commons backed the move, the government has been criticised by senior police officers for failing to warn them in advance that the measure would be introduced.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, criticised the decision to delay the introduction of compulsory masks until 24 July but Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said forces needed time to prepare.
“While we were unaware that the announcement was to be made last night, we have the time to work closely with the Home Office, retailers and trade bodies on the implementation of new regulations on the wearing of face coverings in shops,” Hewitt said.
“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. This must continue to be a joint effort between the retail sector, customers, government and police. This is particularly important as demand on the police increases as the lockdown eases.”
Members of the Independent Sage group set up by Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, said on Tuesday face masks must be made freely available to those who cannot afford them.
Prof Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews said masks could be posted to every household along with information on how they can help and how to wear them. Another option, he said, was to hand masks out on public transport and other places where needed.
In a public briefing, the committee, which was established amid concerns over the transparency of advice reaching ministers from the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), called for a “light touch” when it came to policing the wearing of masks. Shoppers who fail to wear one could face a £100 fine under amended legislation, a move the experts said went too far.
While children under 11 and those with certain physical and mental conditions will be exempt from the rules, the threat of fines could make some groups feel under attack, Reicher said.
“I don’t think fines are necessary. You don’t start off by being punitive, you don’t start off by attacking people, you start off by trying to understand and seeing how you can help them. If people can’t wear masks they can’t wear masks. We’re not going to get to 100% compliance, but if we can get to where Italy and Spain are, which is mid-80%, that will make a huge difference,” he said.
Dr Zubaida Haque at the Runnymede Trust, a race equality thinktank, said: “This is all about keeping people safe. It shouldn’t be perceived as penalising people, it doesn’t require a criminal justice response, it requires a strong, public information campaign and a strong engagement campaign.”