Face Mask Row Isolates Johnson as U.K. Covid Strategy Fractures

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly isolated over his decision to scrap rules requiring face masks to be worn in shops and on public transport, amid a backlash from businesses and officials across the U.K.

From Monday, Johnson will lift Covid restrictions in England to make mask wearing optional in all settings. But authorities in Scotland, Wales and London are planning their own rules in which face coverings will remain compulsory.

The standoff threatens to complicate Johnson’s efforts to reopen the economy, undermining his credibility at a sensitive time.

Business leaders want more clarity from Johnson’s administration, with some warning shop workers could suffer abuse if they ask customers to cover their faces without having legal backing to do so.

The government’s decision to drop the law on masks is a “big change from what the public has got used to in the past 16 months and it will take everyone time to adjust,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive officer of the British Retail Consortium. She called on ministers to give clear guidance on how they expect people to act in stores.

Violence, Abuse

“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,” Dickinson said in an emailed statement.

Johnson announced this week that legal curbs in England -- such as the mandatory wearing of masks -- will be replaced by guidelines from July 19, including advice for people to wear face coverings in crowded spaces while the daily number of new Covid-19 cases remains high.

But recent polling suggests the majority of people want mask wearing to remain mandatory. Two-thirds of people think masks should continue to be required in shops, while 71% say face coverings should be mandatory on public transport, according to a YouGov poll of 2,749 adults published on July 5.

Opposition politicians have pushed Johnson to rethink his plan, and some local authorities are now taking matters into their own hands.

London Rules

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan said mask wearing will remain a condition of traveling on the city’s buses and underground trains, calling the measure vital to protect the public and give passengers confidence to travel at busy times.

“I’m not prepared to stand by and put Londoners, and our city’s recovery, at risk,” Khan said.

Trained “enforcement officers” will patrol the network and could ask people to leave if they fail to comply -- unless they’re exempt on medical or other grounds -- the mayor’s office said in an emailed statement.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Tuesday that mask wearing would continue to be compulsory indoors in public buildings, stores, restaurants and on transport networks.

Authorities in Wales are also due to confirm on Wednesday they will continue to require passengers on buses and trains to wear masks.

Heightened Fears

In northern England, the mayors of Manchester and West Yorkshire, Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin, are developing their own policies to encourage passengers to wear face coverings on public transport.

This fragmented approach poses a major headache for businesses.

“I am not a medical expert but clarity is always helpful and we are definitely of the view that mask wearing has been the right policy,” said James Daunt, managing director at bookseller chain Waterstones. Stores will be keeping screens and hand sanitizers and urging customers to wear face coverings.

Johnson’s policy shift “is really unhelpful at a time when emotions are so heightened,” he said.

Meanwhile luxury brand Burberry will still require staff to wear masks in its outlets, but will leave customers to make up their own mind on face coverings.

Britain’s supermarkets face the biggest challenge in navigating the change in policy, as they employ thousands of people and have millions of customers at stores all over the country. Simon Roberts, chief executive officer of J Sainsbury Plc, the U.K.’s second-largest grocer, said last week that mask wearing would be choice for staff and customers.

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