Consumers across England are getting the sense of déjà vu as Boris Johnson, the country’s Prime Minister, reintroduces mandatory face masks in retail settings.
The new measures have been rolled out to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, a heavily-mutated version of Covid-19, first discovered in South Africa, which has twice the number of mutations as the Delta variant.
The UK has been grappling to get its numbers of the Omicron variant under control since the new strain of the virus was discovered earlier this month.
Cases of the strain have risen to 14 in the UK and it is also present in other European countries, as well as Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Israel.
Speaking at a press conference last week, Johnson said it was important to take “targeted and proportionate measures” but only as a “precaution” while scientists find out more about the mutation.
“We need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK,” he said.
“We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant, by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and public transport.”
Johnson, however, stressed that the rules would be temporary.
But retail bosses are fearful that by policing the new face covering rules, which came into force today, retail staff will be the victims of abuse from shoppers.
Chris Noice, a spokesperson for the Association of Convenience Stores, said: “The first response from retailers was that this would lead to a lot of abuse from people refusing to wear face coverings.
“There could be an issue as there is a bit more of a backlash around Covid regulations than there has been in the past.
“We know from previous lockdowns that reminding people about face coverings and social distancing is a big trigger for abuse and [store workers] are hesitant about challenging people.”
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A 2021 survey by USDAW, a trade union for the retail sector, found that 92% of retail staff had suffered verbal abuse; 70% were threatened; and 14% were physically assaulted by a customer.
Speaking to Cosmetics Business earlier this month, Connor Rand, a Senior Researcher at USDAW, said that abuse and threats towards workers was one of the main worries of retail staff.
In terms of the new measures being reintroduced in retail, the union’s General Secretary, Paddy Lillis, described the government as “flip-flopping”.
“There is no reason why, when lifting other Covid restrictions in England, the government could not have kept the requirement to wear a face covering in busy public places, like shops and public transport,” he said.
“Retail staff working in the public every day are deeply worried about catching Covid-19 and the arrival of the Omicron variant is a further concern.
“Wearing a face covering protects others, it should not be a personal preference, but a personal responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Helen Dickinson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium, said that it should be up to the police to enforce the rules and not retail staff.
“It is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm’s way and enforcement of face coverings must remain the duty of the authorities,” she noted.
“Retailers have worked incredibly hard to get shops and warehouses prepared for Christmas despite a variety of challenges.
“While there may be small changes in the way we shop, we ask people to be considerate and we remain confident that everyone can get what they need for a fun and festive Christmas this year.”