Westminster government continues to dither over face coverings

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A Cabinet minister has provoked further confusion about the wearing of face coverings after declaring he would “perhaps” support making them mandatory when in public.

Justice secretary Robert Buckland, asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he was in the “mandatory perhaps” or “mandatory never” camp in terms of insisting people don face coverings, said: “I think I’m ‘mandatory perhaps’.”

Speaking on Friday, prime minister Boris Johnson hinted non-surgical masks could become compulsory in shops, saying he wanted to be “stricter” on insisting people wear them.

But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Sunday it was “best to trust people’s common sense” rather than force them to adopt face coverings.

Quizzed on the different responses and whether they signalled a split in opinion at the top of government, Buckland told the BBC: “He (Gove) took the view as he was answering the question that he thought we should encourage good sense – I agree with that.

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“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.”

Labour has demanded “clarity” on the government’s position and has requested that health secretary Matt Hancock come to the Commons on Monday to provide Parliament with a “clear message”.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “We need Matt Hancock to come to the House and say this is what the science says, this is what we believe you should be doing and then let’s move on.

“Have a clear message and we all know where we stand.”

The call for ministers to make face coverings mandatory in shops in England has been growing following first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to change the rule in Scotland as of Friday.

Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, told Good Morning Britain that the evidence on face coverings had “shifted”.

Coronavirus Scotland
Scotland has made face coverings in shops compulsory (Jane Barlow/PA)

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member said: “It’s (evidence) now quite strongly in favour of using face coverings in enclosed spaces where we’re likely to come into contact with strangers.

“I think that the government should be very clear. It’s not consistent to make it mandatory on public transport and not make it mandatory in other enclosed and busy public spaces because the behaviour of the virus is the same in all of these spaces.”

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones book stores, said asking customers to wear a face covering was a “reasonable measure”.

When asked if the policy could boost shopper confidence, he told the Today programme: “I don’t think it is a huge factor, but I also think if it reassures people, then it is a perfectly reasonable measure to take.”

But he said staff working across his chain of stores would not be asked to “police” the wearing of coverings.

Daunt added: “There will be a tiny, tiny minority of people who will be confrontational over it and it is not the position of shop workers to enter into that situation.

“We shouldn’t put ourselves in confrontational positions, but I think we can, as retailers, if we are requested to do so, clearly tell everybody it is a sensible thing to do.”

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