Business leaders in industries that operate in public indoor settings fear staff could come under attack from customers after the government lifts the legal requirement to wear face masks on 19 July.
As of next week, businesses can enforce their own policy on masks as they see fit to protect their staff and customers.
But retail and hospitality industry leaders fear that their employees, who work in indoor settings and come into close contact with customers, may face confrontations and abuse if they try to enforce their policy when it is no longer part of the law.
UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said that although the vast majority of people will probably wear face masks when needed, “there’s a real risk that a small minority will not, creating difficulties for staff trying to enforce their venue’s chosen policy, and potentially finding themselves in confrontational situations.”
“There’s also the risk that businesses may unwittingly find themselves in breach of disability legislation,” she added.
The pressure on businesses surrounding their chosen policies exists against a backdrop of rising violence against staff, particularly in the retail sector, where it surged during the pandemic.
Retail bosses at 100 brands, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Ikea, recently penned an open letter to the PM calling for greater legal protection for retail workers who fall victim to violence and abuse.
One business reported a 76 per cent increase in abuse and a 10 per cent increase in violent attacks during the pandemic “of which over half involved a weapon, and many of our colleagues have been coughed at or spat on,” the letter said.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that the government’s decision yesterday was a “big change” from what the public has got used to, but retailers are likely to continue with many of the existing safety measures such as hand sanitiser and perspex screens.
“We are awaiting the detailed guidance and it is vital the Government is as clear as possible as to how they expect people to act after July 19th,” Dickinson said.
“There has been a big rise in violence and abuse against retail workers during the pandemic and colleagues cannot be put in the firing line because of this change in policy,” she added.
Transport ‘singled out’
As the government confirmed yesterday that so-called ‘Freedom Day’ will go ahead on 19 July, Boris Johnson said: “We recommend and expect people to wear a face covering in enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet, such as public transport.”
But the shift from legal restrictions to this verbal guidance has been met with criticism from the industries that operate in these settings.
Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “We are disappointed that public transport was singled out and made an example of by the Prime Minster in his speech yesterday.
“The Government should have shown leadership, rather than hiding behind the operators, and the lack of consistency will cause problems for operators and passengers alike,” he added.
In the absence of regulations, the transport industry needs to have clearer guidance for operators and customers, according to the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which serves the bus industry.
“Passengers will find it difficult to understand why the Prime Minister has singled out public transport as somewhere to wear a face covering when a range of other activities share its characteristics,” the Confederation said in a statement.
The government policy on face coverings has shifted the onus onto individual choice from 19 July, with masks changing from a legal requirement to guidance “so people can take an informed decision,” Treasury minister Stephen Barclay told the BBC’s Today programme this morning.
“One can’t write rules for every scenario. To some extent one has to trust the British public,” Barclay said.
But the extent to which the government trusts the public seems unclear, as ministers have repeatedly said they believe masks should continue to be worn in indoor settings after the rules are eased.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News yesterday that people would be “expected” to wear face masks indoors from 19 July onwards.
“It’s important that we remain cautious and careful and the guidelines that we will set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces and of course to remain vigilant with hands and face,” Zahawi said.
Responding to yesterday’s announcement, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called for the government to issue clearer guidance arounds masks to businesses and the public, amid soaring coronavirus cases.
“It is welcome that the Government is strengthening its messaging to say that people are expected and recommended to wear face coverings on public transport, but the simplest and safest option is for the Government to retain the existing national legal requirement for face coverings on public transport,” Khan said.