Leaving issue to ‘personal choice’ could inspire confusion and confrontation on high street as businesses face difficult task of pleasing anxious staff and frustrated customers
Why might mask-wearing become a divisive issue?
Boris Johnson announced on Monday that Britain is on course to complete its roadmap out of lockdown on 19 July, meaning the curtailing of the final round of social restrictions that have been imposed on the British public since the coronavirus first arrived on these shores in March 2020.
Amongst the measures being repealed is the mandatory requirement that people wear masks in public places, meaning that it will become a matter of “personal choice” whether individuals choose to sport face coverings in shops, bars and even on crowded trains and buses, a decision that has provoked anxiety among a number of prominent scientific advisers, the mayors of London and Manchester and many members of the public, who fear a further spread.
While some – like health minister Helen Whately – have said they “can’t wait” to toss aside their mask, considering it an uncomfortable inconvenience, others will be understandably nervous about the prospect of the virus being allowed to run rampant this summer without safeguarding measures in place to keep transmission in check.
Many people, including Professor Adam Finn of the government’s own Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, have pledged to continue wearing masks in enclosed spaces for the moment.
The issue is a particularly tricky one for business owners, who need to balance the concerns of staff with customer demand.
If mask-wearing is left up to individual discretion, any refusal to host a potential customer on the grounds of their “personal choice” not to wear one could lead to accusations of “discrimination”.
Equally, the proprietor’s own right to exert their “personal choice” by refusing to serve someone they feel represents a transmission threat deserves to be respected.
What right do shops, restaurants, bars and other public venues have to refuse entry?
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Times Radio on Tuesday that there was no reason why bosses should not be able to refuse to serve customers without face masks after 19 July.
“There’s no reason why businesses which have made their own assessments cannot say, ‘Actually, if you come in here we still want you to wear a mask’,” he said.
“They can’t mandate it, but neither are businesses mandated to have to serve you, so if you run a nail bar and you want the clients to wear a face mask, you simply say, ‘You have to wear a face mask if you want to get your nails done’.
“That’s a good example of some direct, personal, face-to-face contact for a good 40 minutes where you don’t want your staff breathing in what Joe Public is breathing on to you.
“I don’t see why public transport companies couldn’t make the same assessment.”
Mr Johnson’s announcement on Monday notably extended no new legal protections to employees, like retail or waiting staff, who might feel uneasy about their bosses abandoning restrictions in the interests of commerce and so refuse to work in an environment without masks in which they feel unsafe.
When masks were first made mandatory in the UK on 24 July last year, shops were empowered to refuse entry to anyone defying the order, with police enforcement permitted as a “last resort” in the event that a frustrated would-be customer became abusive towards staff.
Since then, anyone found to have behaved in such a way has faced a £100 fine.
Why are we asking this now?
The prime minister is set to make a final decision on ending lockdown restrictions on 19 July this coming Monday but he appears determined to press ahead, saying that we must “learn to live with” Covid and that it is a case of “now or never” on reopening.
In addition to changing the status of masks, his plans will also draw a line under social distancing and pave the way for employees to return to offices and public venues to abandon capacity limits, despite rising Covid-19 case numbers, which are forecast to hit 50,000 a day by 19 July and 100,000 later this summer without safeguarding measures in place, according to the British Medical Association.
Meanwhile new variants continue to emerge, most recently the Lambda strain first detected in Peru, which has become the dominant mutation in South America and has just arrived in the UK, with eight cases identified so far and Public Health England investigating whether it might be more readily transmissible and vaccine-resistant than other variations like the Delta variant.