Some large UK retail chains and many smaller shops will not enforce mask wearing for customers, saying they lack the resources and fear reprisals against their staff.
They stressed that it remained the responsibility of the police to uphold Covid rules, even though stores are private property and retailers would be within their rights to refuse entry to anyone not wearing a face covering.
Wm Morrison was the first big supermarket group this week to publicly state that it would refuse entry to people not wearing masks. It was quickly followed by rivals Waitrose, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco.
But frozen food specialist Iceland said it would not ask staff to police mask wearing. “We do not expect [our staff] to confront the small minority of customers who aggressively refuse to comply with the law,” it said in a statement.
Only about a third of Iceland’s 1,000 UK stores — many of which are comparatively small and located on high streets rather than out-of-town sites — employ security guards.
Some smaller groups explained that while out-of-town superstores generating £1m a week of revenue could justify the expense of additional third-party security staff to police Covid restrictions, smaller local shops taking £20,000 or less could not.
Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-operative Food, which operates thousands of convenience stores across the UK, said that while the chain had increased in-store messaging around mask wearing, “shoppers must take responsibility for wearing a face mask”.
Supermarket executives have pointed out that in practice enforcing mask wearing is a challenge as it was not possible to verify claims of medical exemption.
The chief executive of Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, said on Thursday that “if someone comes in and says they have a medical condition or another reason for exemption then our colleagues will take that on trust”.
Government guidance does not require that people exempt from wearing masks carry a doctor’s note to that effect, making it difficult to distinguish between those who cannot wear a mask and those who simply will not.
Iceland said it had recorded more than 600 instances of verbal abuse and 30 actual assaults as a result of customers refusing to comply with various Covid rules since the start of the pandemic.
Some other high street businesses, such as banks, are also taking action to strengthen compliance.
Unite, a recognised trade union for staff in banks, has called for urgent action to make face coverings mandatory in all branches after becoming “increasingly alarmed” at the number of customers refusing to wear them.
“Such blatant disregard for bank staff, who as key workers have continued to work in branches throughout the pandemic, is completely disgraceful,” said Dominic Hook, Unite national officer.
HSBC this week said it would crack down on customers refusing to wear masks by potentially closing their accounts.
Nationwide said branches were “perfectly within their rights to refuse to serve anyone not wearing a face covering”, while TSB said it would “take appropriate action” against rule breakers.
Rules around masks have been inconsistent during the pandemic.
When non-essential stores reopened after the first lockdown last June, the guidance stated that face coverings were only “marginally beneficial”.
Barely a month later, mask wearing for customers was made mandatory because of “growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them”.
The rules did not initially apply to staff and most retailers opted to make masks and visors, which are easier to wear for long periods but less effective, available for those staff that wanted them.
Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, said that while it was true that smaller shops could not afford security staff “some had already made the decision to ban those customers not wearing face coverings before the supermarkets did”.
He added that at larger businesses, security costs were spread across all stores in a chain.
Ken Towle, chief executive of convenience group Nisa, said the retailers it supported had reported that “the vast majority of customers are well behaved and compliant, probably helped by the community spirit in local independent shops”.
The new nationwide lockdown rules in England
The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message
People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally
The most clinically vulnerable will be asked to shield
All colleges and primary and secondary schools will be closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers will still be able to attend while nursery provision will remain available
University students will have to study from home until at least mid-February
Hospitality and non-essential retail will be closed. Takeaway services will be available but not for the sale of alcohol
Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos will close. Playgrounds can remain open
Places of worship can also stay open but one may attend only with one’s household
Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, will close. Elite sport including the English Premier League will be able to continue
Overseas travel will be allowed for “essential” business only
Full details are available on the government’s official website.
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