A government U-turn on the introduction of mandatory face coverings in shops in England has been welcomed after several days of confusion.
They will become compulsory in all shops and supermarkets from July 24, with flouters at risk of being hit with fines of £100.
Boris Johnson warned last week that the rule was going to be put in place, but then Michael Gove dismissed the claim over the weekend before Number 10 confirmed last night the rule would be implemented from a week on Friday.
The British Retail Consortium welcomed the ‘clarity’ on the use of face coverings in shops in England after days of ‘mixed messages’.
‘The clarity we’re going to get today for implementation in about 10 days’ time is going to give a level of reassurance,’ chief executive Helen Dickinson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
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‘What we saw over the weekend with mixed messages, I think made it really difficult for people to understand what it was they’re expected to do.
‘Clarity is really important to give people that confidence. It is absolutely true that sales and footfall are returning only very slowly to our high streets and town centres and shopping centres up and down the country.’
She added she was pleased authorities, rather than businesses, would be responsible for enforcement.
‘We look forward to further clarity over whether the wearing of face coverings will apply to shop staff,’ she said.
‘If so, there must be flexibility for colleagues who are in stores all day and can already benefit from other safety measures such as protective screens and two-metre distancing.
‘While retailers will play their part in communicating the new rules on face masks, they must not be the ones enforcing these rules.
‘With hundreds of incidents of violence and abuse directed at retail staff every day, we welcome the announcement that enforcement will be left to the authorities, rather than potentially putting hardworking retail colleagues in harm’s way.’
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘The advice is, where it’s not possible to keep your social distance, particularly if you’re in confined spaces indoors, shops, supermarkets and the like, gyms is another good example, this small measure can make a massive difference along with other measures.
‘Clearly, if it’s not practical to do so, think of a pub, a bar, or restaurant, in those places, it shouldn’t be mandatory.’
He had previously called for face coverings to be made compulsory in shops after face coverings were made mandatory on public transport a month ago.
The comments come after it was announced late last night that wearing face coverings in English shops and supermarkets will be made mandatory from July 24.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to make a full statement on the fresh legislation tonight.
Anyone inside a shop without a covering over their nose and mouth risks being hit with a £100 fine – reduced to £50 if it is paid within 14 days.
A Downing Street spokesman said on Monday: ‘There is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from coronavirus. The Prime Minister has been clear that people should be wearing face coverings in shops and we will make this mandatory from July 24.’
It will be up to police to dish out penalties and not business owners or shop workers, although they are being asked to encourage customers to comply.
The regulations will be made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
It adds to the list of places we have to be covered up which currently includes all public transport as well as all hospital visitors and outpatients in England.
Official guidance says people in England should also wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces where social distancing is not possible.
There are a few exceptions to the new rules – children under 11 and people with certain disabilities and breathing conditions will be exempt.
The Government has previously been reluctant to enforce the wearing of face coverings, and its guidance states they do not protect the wearer but may protect others if people are infected but have not yet developed symptoms.
Some senior advisers have warned that face coverings can give people a false sense of security and lead to over-reliance on ‘ineffective homemade masks’ rather than thorough hand hygiene.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) says incorrect use of coverings – such as putting them on incorrectly, touching the face more than normal and reusing dirty ones – could increase the spread of infection.
The rules enforce face coverings, which are are not the same as face masks. The Government has said coverings can be made from scarves, bandanas or other fabric items, as long as they cover the mouth and nose.
The public have been asked not to use medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) masks to ensure these remain available for frontline healthcare workers.
The move will bring England into line with Scotland, where face coverings were made mandatory in shops a week ago.
Northern Ireland made face coverings mandatory on public transport on July 10, but has yet to make a final decision on shops.
Face coverings are advised in Wales in situations ‘where social distancing is not possible’, and on Monday the Welsh Government announced they would be obligatory on public transport from July 27.
Unlike the UK Government and other devolved administrations, Wales has specified any face covering should be made up of three layers of cloth to meet the standard set by regulations.
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