Firms blast ministers over Covid facemask rules ‘mess’

Lots of messaging, guidance, encouragement and expectations, not much in the way of legal backing. 

This is not surprising. None of this is designed to help business. It’s all to do with trying to nuance the various factions in Boris’ flakey 80 majority in the face of exponential growth in infections. – Owl

Henry Zeffman, Chief Political Correspondent | Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent

Facemasks are expected to be worn in shops and at work and table service should remain in bars, the government said yesterday in a move that provoked a backlash.

The guidance issued by ministers was stronger than expected by businesses, which said they were being left in legal limbo. They have five days to decide how to implement the rules, which were described as “mixed messages” and a “real mess”.

Sainsbury’s became the biggest retailer to ask customers to keep wearing masks. Signs and announcements in its branches will reinforce the message. The bookshop chain Waterstones, which has more than 280 shops across Britain, also said it would ask customers to keep wearing masks.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said masks would be required on the area’s tram services. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, backed a move by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, to require masks on the Tube and buses in the capital.

The official advice issued yesterday told shops that “the government expects and recommends that people continue to wear a face covering in crowded, enclosed spaces”. It asked retailers to “consider encouraging, for example through signage, the use of face coverings by workers, particularly in indoor areas where they may come into contact with people they do not normally meet”. Similar advice applies in other workplaces.

Restaurants, pubs and bars are also encouraged to keep many of their Covid adaptations. They are told to consider asking customers to order through an app from their table, to prefer contactless payments, to discourage self-service of food and provide only disposable condiments. Venues should “encourage the use of outside space where practical”, especially for “higher-risk activity, such as exercise or when people are singing”.

Businesses in all settings are told that even though they are no longer legally required to tell customers to “check in” or collect contact details, continuing to do so is among the most important things they can do to curb Covid.

Every sector has been told to ensure adequate ventilation, with ministers recommending that carbon dioxide monitors be used to verify this. Despite the lifting of guidance to work from home, the government says it expects and recommends a gradual return to offices.

Simon Roberts, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said the supermarket’s decision to promote mask wearing was because staff and shoppers had said they would “feel more comfortable” if coverings stayed in place.

Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said: “Like everybody else, businesses across the country having been awaiting ‘freedom day’ with bated breath, but instead we have had a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements from government that have dampened that enthusiasm.”

Usdaw, the retail trade union, called the guidance “a real mess”. Paddy Lillis, the general secretary, said: “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.”

Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the guidance had left companies unclear “whether they will be held liable should they make changes to the way they operate” from next week. She said: “Companies now have just five days to make this judgment call and effectively communicate it to staff and customers.”

Civic leaders are supporting the continued wearing of masks on public transport. Shapps said he backed Khan’s decision to keep the masks rule on the London Tube and buses even though the government was scrapping the legal public transport requirement. “We said people should wear masks in crowded areas,” he told Times Radio.