Face coverings will become mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England from July 24 as part of a dual move to keep the spread of coronavirus low and to attract more people back to shopping malls and high streets. The maximum penalty for non-compliance is £100 (about $125).
The government allowed non-essential stores to reopen on June 15 and it has been considering making face masks compulsory in line with Scotland, and some other European Union countries like Spain and Italy, both of which were hit hard by Covid-19.
Yesterday there were 530 new Covid-19 cases, down 90% since the peak of the U.K. health crisis. Just 11 deaths were also reported, the lowest figure since March 13. The Office of National Statistics says that total deaths are currently lower than usual for this time of year.
However Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said in parliament today: “We cannot let our progress lead to complacency tomorrow. In recent weeks we’ve opened retail, and footfall is rising. We want to give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops. Both of these can be done by the use of face coverings.”
High rates of death for retail staff
Hancock noted that shop sales assistants, cashiers, and security guards have suffered disproportionately in the Covid-19 crisis. Official health data show that death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75% higher amongst men, and 60% higher amongst women than in the general population. “As we restore shopping, so we must keep out shopkeepers safe,” said the health secretary.
There is evidence from the British Retail
The U.K. government was clear that the liability of not wearing a face covering rests with the individual and not the store. Shops can refuse entry to individuals not wearing a mask without a relevant exemption—for example people with certain disabilities and children under 11—“and they can call the police if people refuse to comply” said Hancock. Police have the powers to fine shoppers up to £100 in line with a pre-existing sanction on public transport.
While many store employees are donning masks, it was not clear whether the new rules would make coverings compulsory for them too. Dickinson said: “We look forward to further clarity over whether the wearing of face coverings will apply to shop staff. If so, there must be flexibility for colleagues who already benefit from other safety measures such as protective screens and two-metre distancing.
According to the BRC retailers have already spent “hundreds of millions” installing perspex screens, implementing social distancing measures and providing additional cleaning in stores.
Some encouraging signs in June
The U.K. economy grew by a +1.8% month-on-month in May. This was below expectations but it is hoped that the mid-June re-opening of non-essential retail could provide a bigger boost.
In the four weeks to July 4, the day that pubs and restaurants reopened in England, there was an improvement in retail performance. According to the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor, June’s retail sales increased by 10.9% on a like-for-like basis from June 2019, driven primarily by online sales.
Paul Martin, UK Head of Retail at KPMG, said today: “June saw pent up consumer demand released, with total sales finally back in positive territory. But the challenges and longer-term consequences for the industry have far from disappeared, and not all categories of retail are benefiting from this post-lockdown boom.
“Food and drink sales have continued to perform strongly, and June’s warmer weather accentuated that. It also resulted in more Brits purchasing items to make their lives more comfortable, whether that be furniture, toys, or computing equipment.
“Fashion sales haven’t rebounded quite as impressively though, despite reports of increased interest from those prepared to queue to enter stores. Online sales, while still in a high gear, are cooling a little as high street activity picks up again slowly.”
However, Martin is not convinced that consumers will forego the convenience of online shopping just because physical stores are open again. “Retailers won’t be picking up where they left off—and months of reduced or no sales will threaten the survival of many,” he added.