Great mask U-turn: UK supermarkets join mayors in push to keep face coverings

Revolt against Boris Johnson's decision to make masks voluntary

All major supermarkets in Britain have encouraged customers to keep wearing a face covering, even though the legal requirement to wear one will end on Monday. Reuters
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end compulsory mask wearing in England next week has been dealt another blow, with most major British supermarkets joining mayors and scientists in encouraging people to keep wearing one.

Supermarkets Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi and Waitrose all said on Thursday they would encourage shoppers to wear a face covering from Monday, while department store chain John Lewis also recommended shoppers keep it on while in their stores.

The decision from major shops came as the UK government’s own advice said it “expects and recommends” face masks to be worn by workers and customers in crowded spaces, even though doing so will become voluntary in England.

The guidance also applies to offices, factories, construction sites and close contact services such as hairdressers.

Scotland and Wales will keep legislation making masks compulsory in certain situations even though they will soon proceed to the next stage of their unlocking.

Several local authorities have also advised people to keep wearing a mask.

London mayor Sadiq Khan on Wednesday announced masks would remain compulsory on the capital’s transport network from Monday, and he did not rule out deploying more enforcement officers to remove commuters not wearing a mask.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said removing compulsory mask-wearing was “fairly reckless” and he said the city would be “strongly encouraging” commuters to still wear one.

“We remain of the view that the best solution is for the government to maintain a requirement of face coverings on all modes of public transport and we call on them, even at this stage, to return to that position,” he said.

Explaining its decision to encourage mask-wearing after the legal mandate ends, Tesco said it aimed to create a “safe environment” for shoppers, with social distancing measures still in place.

People wearing face masks while shopping at Sainsbury's during January's lockdown in England. Reuters

“Having listened to our customers and colleagues, we will continue to have safety measures in place in our stores. These include limiting the number of people in store at any time, protective screens at every checkout, hand sanitiser stations and regular cleaning,” a spokesman said.

Sainsbury's, second in Britain to market leader Tesco, said on Wednesday that signs and loudspeaker messages in shops would encourage customers to wear a face covering.

Staff will also be encouraged to wear a mask unless they are behind a screen.

“Our colleagues' safety is vital and many of our colleagues would feel more comfortable if those who can wear face coverings continue to wear them,” chief executive Simon Roberts said.

“We've listened closely to our customers too, and they are telling us the same.”

Asda said it would continue to provide face coverings in shops for customers who wished to use them.

“We encourage customers to be respectful to each other,” a spokesman said.

Scientists have advised people in England to keep wearing masks after next week.

They say the fast-spreading Delta variant, which is now dominant in Britain, has significantly changed the situation since the road map out of lockdown was laid out in February.

“It's not inevitable that you're going to have an exit wave ... it's only inevitable if we're not going to do anything about it,” Prof Christina Pagel from University College London said.

“Delta has changed the equation, it's made it much harder to rely on vaccination to bring cases down on its own.”

Paddy Lillis, the general secretary of the shop union Usdaw, described England's voluntary mask-wearing policy as a “real mess".

“Protection for retail workers through wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing in busy public areas like shops should be backed up by the law,” he said.

Mr Johnson has said people in England should use their own judgment about whether to wear masks.

Updated: July 15, 2021, 7:05 PM