Wearing face coverings in shops will not become mandatory in England, Michael Gove has suggested, sparking confusion over plans to stem the spread of coronavirus as the country emerges from lockdown.
On Friday Boris Johson indicated he was considering making masks compulsory in shops and other enclosed spaces, but Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said instead that people could use their common sense.
Despite criticism from scientists over an alleged slowness to act, he described the decision as “good manners” rather than a public health necessity.
Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show whether face coverings would become mandatory in shops, Gove said: “I don’t think mandatory, no, but I would encourage people to wear a face mask, where they are inside, in an environment where they are likely to be mixing with others and the ventilation may not be as good as it might. It is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration to wear a face mask if, for example, you’re in a shop.”
Earlier Gove had told Sky News that masks were appropriate on public transport and in shops to protect people in case someone was asymptomatic but capable of spreading the infection.
People over 60 or with health issues should wear a medical-grade mask when they are out and cannot socially distance, according to new guidance from the World Health Organization, while all others should wear a three-layer fabric mask.
The WHO guidance, announced on 5 June, is a result of research commissioned by the organisation. It is still unknown whether the wearers of masks are protected, say its experts, but the new design it advocates does give protection to other people if properly used.
The WHO says masks should be made of three layers – with cotton closest to the face, followed by a polypropylene layer and then a synthetic layer that is fluid-resistant. These are no substitute for physical distancing and hand hygiene, it says, but should be worn in situations where distancing is difficult, such as on public transport and at mass demonstrations.
The WHO has been reluctant to commit to recommending face coverings, firstly because the evidence on whether they offer any protection to the public is limited and – more importantly – because it was afraid it would lead to shortages of medical-grade masks for health workers.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
Government sources confirmed Johnson was in talks about taking a firmer stance on face masks after he said on Friday: “I do think we need to be stricter in insisting people wear face coverings in confined spaces where they are meeting people they don’t normally meet. That’s why it’s mandatory already on public transport. We are looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings in shops, for instance, where there is a risk of transmission.”
It was understood the prime minister was due to make a further announcement on the topic this week.
Scotland has already made face masks mandatory in shops. In England masks have been required on public transport since 12 June.
Labour has said it could support the mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops. Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, the shadow business minister, Lucy Powell, said: “We think the government – instead of just showing a bit of leg occasionally on these things by briefing newspapers or saying things that are not clear guidance in press conferences, as the prime minister did on Friday – [should] get some clarity.
“That’s really something that would get confidence back into the system and get people feeling that they can go to the shops, they can go to restaurants and go to bars.”
The Sunday Telegraph reported that the government was preparing to ease advice against using public transport to encourage people to return to work in person and use reopened shops, pubs and restaurants.
The Department for Transport has removed from its website the guidance that public transport should be avoided except for essential journeys. However, it continues to suggest people work from home wherever possible and to cycle or walk instead of travelling by other means. It also suggests commuters should avoid rush hour if possible. Whitehall sources told the paper that encouraging people to use trains in a safe way would be a focus in coming weeks.