Police were “unaware” of the impending announcement that face masks will be made mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England, national leaders have said.
Some officers have already questioned how the new law will be enforced when it comes into effect on 24 July, allowing people to be fined £100 for refusing to wear face coverings.
Only 10 fines have so far been handed out for a separate law requiring them to be worn on public transport in England, and enforcement of lockdown breaches is at the lowest level since restrictions started in March.
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “While we were unaware that the announcement was to be made last night, we have the time to work closely with the Home Office, retailers and trade bodies on the implementation of new regulations on the wearing of face coverings in shops.”
Police were previously “in the dark” about Boris Johnson’s announcement of the UK-wide lockdown on 23 March, and have repeatedly been left scrambling to update officers on changes to the Health Protection Regulations.
Mr Hewitt said retailers would be expected to refuse entry to customers without masks, and only call police “as a last resort”.
He added: “As with other coronavirus regulations, we will follow an approach of engaging, explaining, encouraging and only enforcing where encouragement has been unsuccessful.”
Mr Hewitt called for the change to be a “joint effort” amid rising crime levels following the easing of lockdown restrictions.
The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, said the law would add pressure to officers who are “already being stretched to the limit”.
“To expect my colleagues to be policing the supermarket aisles, looking for those shoppers not wearing a face covering, is unrealistic and unfair,” said chair John Apter.
“We simply don’t have the resources, and this would fundamentally undermine the model of policing, which is to police by consent.”
There were a number of scandals over supermarkets in the early part of the lockdown, when some regional police forces were forced to backtrack on suggestions they were monitoring “non-essential” shopping.
Mr Apter called for the government to make face masks a condition of entry to shops, and encourage retailers to provide coverings for those without their own.
“Of course, there will be occasions where police will have to get involved, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody,” he added.
“However, this should be the exception as police officers have more than enough to deal with by policing the pandemic and responding to the many other calls they receive.”
The leader of the Police Federation’s London branch said the law would be “nigh on impossible for enforcement”.
“If a shopkeeper calls the police because someone hasn’t got a mask on, they haven’t got the power to detain them so that person can just walk away,” Ken Marsh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We’ll be driving around and around London looking for people who weren’t wearing masks, it’s absolutely absurd.”
Earlier on the programme, JD Sports chief executive Peter Cowgill suggested his stores will offer face coverings to anyone not wearing them but that staff will not be ordered to enforce the law.
“The guidance so far is that … it’s a police matter to enforce rather than for them to get involved in any potential public disturbances,” he added.
The government was criticised for inconsistency, after previously rebuffing calls to make face masks mandatory in shops and only taking the action for public transport in June.
Mr Johnson hinted that “stricter” mask rules could be imposed in England on Friday, but two days later Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said it was better to “trust people’s common sense”.
Shop staff will not be legally required to wear face coverings, and the law will not apply to pubs and restaurants.
In reply to a question about bars in the House of Commons, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, suggested it could be extended to other premises.
“We of course keep all things under review but in the first instance the proposal, in the same way we brought this in on public transport and NHS last month, is to bring this in in chunks,” he said.
There has been no confirmation of whether masks will be required in gyms, which will be allowed to open the day after the new law comes into force.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said ministers needed to explain why it had taken them so long to act.
“The government has been slow and muddled again over face coverings,” he said.
There was a backlash from some Conservative Party members and a senior MP, as the Twitter hashtag “no masks” trended on Tuesday.
Some grassroots members cut up their membership cards, while former minister Sir Desmond Swayne branded face masks a “monstrous imposition” in the House of Commons.
A doctor at a London hospital told the Press Association: “I wore an FFP3 [respiratory mask], some goggles, a hat, a full-length gown with the consistency of a bin bag and two pairs of gloves solidly for about two months.
“A bunch of Tories can wear a napkin over their face to go Waitrose.”
Scotland introduced new laws making face masks compulsory in enclosed spaces, including both shops and public transport, on Friday. Offenders can be fined £60.
Northern Ireland has no plan to make them compulsory in shops but made face coverings a legal requirement on public transport from 10 July.
In Wales, face coverings will become mandatory for public transport only when new rules come into force on 27 July.
Coronavirus laws in the four nations of the UK started diverging early in the lockdown, sparking criticism over widespread “confusion” about what is a crime.
A recent study from the universities of Cambridge and Greenwich found that the widespread use of face masks keeps the coronavirus reproduction number below one.
Researchers found that even homemade masks with limited effectiveness can dramatically reduce transmission rates if worn by enough people, regardless of whether they show symptoms.
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