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Ministers have decided to change the law to enforce the measure after studying new scientific evidence showing that covering the nose and mouth can curb the spread of coronavirus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock will today announce to MPs that the measure will come into force in England from July 24.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “There is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from Coronavirus.’
“The Prime Minister has been clear that people should be wearing face coverings in shops and we will make this mandatory from July 24.”
The shift follows a snap Government review of the issue with some ministers understood to have argued for the voluntary approach to continue.
Shoppers caught flouting the rule will face a £100 fine under changes expected to be made by Parliament to the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act. Paying the fine within 14 days will lead to a reduction to £50.
Whitehall insiders say responsibility for enforcing the rule will lie with the police.
Shop staff will be expected to encourage people to obey the law but will not be expected to try to compel people who refuse to wear a mask.
In line with the rules on public transport, children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt from having to wear a mask.
Ministers will keep the option of widening the rules to cover other enclosed public spaces under review.
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Mr Johnson today acknowledged that masks “have a great deal of value” in the battle against the virus and hinted that a law change was on the way.
During a visit to the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service, the Prime Minister said: “What we’ve said for a while now is that we do think masks have a great deal of value – obviously they’re mandatory on public transport, on the Tube – but they have a great deal of value in confined spaces, where you’re coming into contact with people you don’t normally meet.
“What’s been interesting on the face coverings issue in the last few months is the scientific evaluation of face coverings and their importance in stopping aerosol droplets, that’s been growing.
“So, I do think that in shops it is very important to wear a face covering, if you’re going to be in a confined space and you want to protect other people and to receive protection in turn.
“Yes, face coverings, I think, people should be wearing in shops.
“And, in terms of how we do that, whether we make it mandatory or not, we will be looking at the guidance, we’ll be saying a little bit more in the next few days.”
His remarks appeared to be at odds with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove’s insistence on Sunday that while wearing a mask was “basic good manners” he trusted “people’s good sense” on the issue.
The Government’s policy shift follows scientific research suggesting coronavirus droplets hang in the air in enclosed space much longer than previously through.
Concern has also grown about the extent the disease is spread by people infected with the virus without showing symptoms.
But ministers are understood to have been divided over the issue with some fearing that
Mr Johnson also repeated his call for employees to start returning to their workplaces.
“Where businesses have made a huge effort to make the workplace safe, I do think people should start to think about getting back to work but provided we all continue to follow the precautions,” he said, contradicting the current Government advice to work from home where possible.
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And Mr Johnson risked worsening the confusion about Government guidelines by greeting ambulance staff with “elbow bumps” apparently flouting the advice to maintain two metres distance between people whenever possible.
Earlier yesterday, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland making masks compulsory was under consideration in case people needed a “nudge” to don the garments.
“Wearing them in an enclosed space where you’ve got lots of people, for example a busy shop, seems to be sensible,” he said.
“It is all about increasing confidence. I think the more of us who do the courteous and responsible thing, the more people you’ll see venture out into shops.”
Mr Buckland added: “If it becomes necessary to nudge people further by taking further action then of course we will consider that.
“I think the matter is under careful and daily review.”
At present, wearing face coverings is a condition of travel of public transport but is not mandatory elsewhere outside of hospitals and other clinical environments in England.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Government had made face masks compulsory in shops in Scotland however.
Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth yesterday wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to demand urgent clarification of the Government’s stance on face masks.
In his letter, the shadow health secretary wrote: “Conflicting advice and conflicting statements from the Government only hinder our fight against the virus.
“Clear communication is vital in combating the spread of Covid-19.
“For the public to know that they are doing the right thing in shops, restaurants and other crowded places, I am asking that you urgently set out the position on face coverings.
“As lockdown rules are further relaxed this week, it is vital that updated guidance on this issue is published by the Government without delay.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “A formal review is taking place and we will be discussing it with scientific advisers this week and setting out a final position in the next few days.”
He added: “I’ve always said we would keep this under review and so have the experts who advise the Government.”
The spokesman said the Government guidance recommending people should work from home if possible was also under review.
“What the advice says is that employers should decide in consultation with their workers whether it is viable for them to continue working from home.
“Where it is decided that workers should come in to their place of work, then this will need to be reflected in the risk assessment and actions taken to manage to risk of transmission,” the spokesman said.
“The PM set out on Friday that if you’re obeying the guidelines, and provided it is safe, then you should look to go back to work.
“The guidance we have is under review but it does say employers and employees should discuss and agree working arrangements to best suit the needs of the business.”
During his visit yesterday, Mr Johnson also revealed that he plans to holiday in the UK this summer.
“I think this is a great, great year for people to have a staycation.
“This country is uniquely blessed with fantastic places to holiday, whether coastal or otherwise.
“And I am certainly going to be doing that, but I won’t necessarily tell you where at this stage,” the Prime Minister said.
“Obviously if people feel the need for a foreign holiday then that’s completely a matter for them, I totally understand it, but there are fantastic, fantastic places, peerless, wonderful, superlative places in the UK to go on holiday and that’s certainly what I will be doing.”
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