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'If we tell people to wear a mask we get bawled at'

By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter

Published
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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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Michelle says she would like to have police officers available to help when customers don't want to wear masks in the convenience store where she works in the west Midlands.

"We've had people refuse to wear them because they don't believe in Covid-19," she says.

But company policy is not to approach them for fear of a backlash.

Ultimately, anyone not abiding by the law on face coverings can be fined, but in practice that does not often happen.

National Police Chiefs Council figures show 89 fines were handed out across England and Wales between 15 June and 21 September for non-compliance.

The NPCC said it expects retailers "to manage entry to their stores and compliance with the law while customers are inside". The NPCC said police officers would only be involved "as a last resort".

But for shop workers like Michelle that means some difficult situations arise.

"We've had customers squabbling between themselves over masks, saying why haven't you got on a mask on?" says Michelle. "Then they have a go at us because we haven't made them wear a mask."

"If we tell people to wear a mask we get bawled at, if we don't, we get bawled at," she said.

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Tom Ironside, director of regulations at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Retailers are meeting their responsibilities by encouraging and communicating the rules on face coverings, such as through signage, in-store announcements and other reminders."

Representatives of police groups and retailers met government officials on Wednesday to explore how to improve compliance through "opportunities for collaboration".

Masks are mandatory in most indoor public settings including shops.

The rules have recently been extended to include taxis and minicabs, for customers entering bars, cafes and restaurants, and for hospitality and retail staff.

image copyrightPA Media

Fines

In England, the police can issue a £200 fine to anyone breaking face covering rules. In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, a £60 fine can be imposed. Repeat offenders face bigger fines.

Shops are legally obliged to ensure customers know the rules around face coverings. Most display prominent signs reminding customers of the rules, and some have staff speaking directly to customers at the door.

Only a very small number of shoppers refuse to cover their faces according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, which found in August almost 96% of adults wore a mask in some settings outside the home.

However, heated debates on social media suggest there is a strong degree of polarisation between those who believe face covering rules to be an infringement of their personal freedom and those who view refusing to wear one as selfish and dangerous.

The trade union representing shopworkers, Usdaw, said if staff were asked to confront non-compliant shoppers it could create "a major flashpoint for abuse, threats and violence".

"We've been very clear from the beginning it's not the responsibility of shop workers to enforce this," said Usdaw spokesman David Williams.

"This is the personal responsibility of shoppers. As long as they know face coverings are mandatory in shops, it's their decision if they choose to ignore it."

Moreover, some members of the public are legitimately exempt from mask-wearing for medical reasons and it wasn't appropriate for staff to ask shoppers to share private medical information, he said.

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