Big high street names have said they will not ask staff to enforce a new law that makes wearing a face mask compulsory in shops in England, despite calls from police representatives to eject shoppers who refuse.
Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and the Co-op are among the stores saying they will not ask staff to police the rule, which carries a £100 fine for non-compliance. They are instead urging shoppers to “play their part” and hammering home the government edict on signs and via public address announcements in store.
Jo Whitfield, who runs the Co-op’s 2,600 grocery stores, said staff already received abuse from shoppers on a daily basis and would not be challenging customers over the matter.
“We’ll have in-store signage on the new rules around face coverings but we are clear that shop workers should not enforce the new legislation,” Whitfield said.
“On a daily basis they face abuse, threatening behaviour and even physical assault. Our own figures show that during the Covid-19 crisis such instances have risen and enforcing the wearing of face masks could be another flashpoint.”
The rules on English shops came into force on Friday, more than a month after face coverings became a requirement on public transport in England on 15 June. Anyone who disregards the rule can be fined up to £100, reduced to £50 if they pay within 14 days. Face masks have been mandatory in Scottish shops since 10 July but are not currently required in Wales or Northern Ireland.
John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said forces “do not have the resources” to widely enforce the law.
“It is our members who are expected to police what is a new way of living and I would urge retail outlets to play their part in making the rules crystal clear – if you are not wearing a face covering then you are not coming in,” he said.
“Officers will be there to help stores if needed – but only as a last resort, as we simply do not have the resources.
“The vast majority of the public have complied with the lockdown rules so far and I would hope they will continue to do the right thing and wear face coverings in stores to help protect fellow citizens to minimise the spread of the virus.”
The government guidance encourages retailers to “take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law” and adds that they “could refuse entry to anyone who does not have a valid exemption”.
The Association of Convenience Stores, which speaks for 33,500 local shops, has also advised its members not to confront customers unwilling to wear a face covering.
Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second-largest supermarket chain, said posters are being displayed inside and outside stores and there would be regular announcements over public address systems asking customers to follow the new rules. However, it added: “Our colleagues will not be responsible for enforcing them.”
The major supermarkets are either selling or giving away masks at the entrance to their stores. Asda said it would also “strongly encourage customers to wear a face covering”, but added: “It is the responsibility of the relevant authorities to police and enforce the new rules.”
David Potts, the chief executive of Morrisons, said the most effective measure to ensure customers wore masks would be peer pressure. He told the Times: “In the same way speeding on the motorway requires oversight, this is also a requirement from the authorities on the public. The regulation of it does not fall to our shop staff.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), the retail industry’s trade body, said the “ultimate responsibility remains with customers who must ensure that they wear a face covering when going into stores”.
“Our shopping experience is changing, and we ask customers to be respectful and considerate of the new rules,” said Tom Ironside, its director of business and regulation.
Unions are concerned that some staff may be expected or feel pressured to tell shoppers to follow the rules, potentially sparking conflict and putting them at risk.
Paddy Lillis, from the retail employees’ union Usdaw, said: “The government has said that shop workers are not expected to enforce this law but we are concerned that it may be a flashpoint for abuse of staff.”
Further impositions on shoppers are still being considered by the government. A minister in the House of Lords said that requirements for the public to wear gloves are being considered.
Lord Bethell, concluding a debate on coronavirus regulations, told peers: “To date, gloves are not in the guidance but they remain an area that we’re looking at.”