On Saturday November 27 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that face coverings would once again be made compulsory by law, both in shops and on public transport.
Supermarkets across the country responded in a number of different ways when faced with the announcement. Some welcomed the news that face coverings would be compulsory within retail settings, while others expressed concern that enforcement would be left to staff on the shop floor.
“On face coverings, what we’re looking at is retail and transport, just going back to a position where you have to wear them in retail settings or on public transport,” Johnson said of the government’s latest mask mandate, which was designed to help curb the rise of the Omicron Coronavirus variant.
However, retail bosses fear supermarket staff could be subject to abuse if asked to impose the rules and say enforcement must remain the job of the government. Ultimately; to enforce or not to enforce, that is the question.
“Retailers will be communicating the new rules on face coverings in England through in-store signage and other channels,” said British Retail Consortium (BRC) chief executive Helen Dickinson.
“However, 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.
“Furthermore, we all have an individual responsibility to put on a face covering before entering a shop.”
The mask mandate is the latest in a long line of challenges for grocery retailers, including labour shortages and ongoing supply chain disruption.
Grocers have adopted differing stances over face mask enforcement. Here is what the major UK supermarkets had to say:
Tesco has reminded its customers to keep wearing masks in a statement on its website and via Twitter.
“In line with the latest government guidance, from 30/11 wearing a face covering in-store will be mandatory (unless exempt) to help keep you safe,” the UK’s largest grocer tweeted.
“Please be kind, patient and respectful to our colleagues and customers.”
A Tesco spokesperson also told The Mirror: “As we have throughout the pandemic, we are continuing to follow government guidance to ensure the safety of our customers and colleagues.
“From Tuesday 30th November, it is a legal requirement to wear a face covering in our stores unless exempt in line with government guidance.”
Aldi has said in addition to mandatory mask wearing, its stores will continue to deploy additional safety measures including plastic screens and hand sanitiser stations.
“The safety of our colleagues and customers is our number one priority,” Aldi UK chief executive officer Giles Hurley said.
“Following the latest Government announcement, wearing a face covering will be mandatory for everyone that shops at Aldi from today, except for those who have a medical exemption.”
Iceland managing director Richard Walker has said the supermarket will not be heavily enforcing mask-wearing, amid concerns over staff treatment.
“We fully support the reintroduction of compulsory face masks in shops; however, we won’t be asking our store colleagues to police it,” Walker told the Daily Mail.
“Our store teams, alongside all retail workers, have shown heroic efforts in terms of ensuring safety for customers and building back consumer confidence and it’s crucial that we stay focused on the long-term recovery of the high street.
“We need to continue to encourage people to shop in stores if they feel comfortable, and I’m hopeful that the latest guidelines won’t discourage customers from doing so.”
Sainsbury’s contacted customers via email, notifying them that they will need a face covering to enter its stores and explaining there will be “new signs” and security guards to enforce the message.
“Throughout the week we’ll be putting new signs and posters up in all of our stores and we will have greeters and security guards at the front of our supermarkets to support our colleagues as we help everyone get used to the new rules,” Sainsbury’s chief executive Simon Roberts said in the email.
“We continue to thoroughly clean trollies, baskets and checkouts and, as an extra precautionary measure, we have increased the fresh air circulating to make sure our stores are well-ventilated.
“We are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe this festive season.”
The Co-op has said they will follow official guidelines and put up signs in stores, but staff will not enforce mask-wearing, nor refuse to serve customers who are not wearing one.
“We have seen throughout the pandemic that the enforcement of social distancing rules has been a flashpoint for enormous levels of violence and abuse against my colleagues, and we will not put our colleagues at risk,” Co-op policy director Paul Gerrard told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“It’s not just the frequency, it’s the violence and the seriousness of it.
“Every day, in the 2,600 Co-op shops, ten of my colleagues will be physically attacked.
“Five of them will be attacked with a weapon – it could be a syringe, it could be a knife, it could be a hammer – and that’s not unusual to the Co-op.”
“We will be following all updated government guidelines to keep our customers and colleagues safe,” a Morrisons spokesperson told LBC.
The supermarket will also offer free face coverings to any customer who has forgotten theirs.
“At Lidl GB our priority continues to be the health and safety of our customers and colleagues,” a Lidl spokesperson told LBC.
“Whilst enforcement is the responsibility of the authorities, we ask anyone entering our stores to wear a face covering, unless exempt.
“To help communicate the regulations we will have signage in place across all our stores and will issue updates on social media and our website.
“Additional measures also remain in place, including cleaning stations at entrances, hand sanitiser, and protective screens at checkouts.
“We thank everyone for continuing to show consideration and kindness to our store teams who work extremely hard to support their communities.”