Supermarkets and train operators will carry on asking people to wear facemasks after the legal requirement for them comes to an end today.
Plan B coronavirus measures in England have been dropped as Boris Johnson promises a route back to “complete normality”. Last night Sajid Javid, the health secretary, boasted of “restoring more freedoms to this country”.
Some supermarkets said that they would continue to ask or suggest that shoppers wear a mask, with at least one large chain suggesting that it was safer to do so. Train companies said that passengers should continue to wear masks “as a courtesy to others”.
Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and John Lewis are among shops where customers will still be asked to wear masks.
Last night Tory MPs cautioned against overzealous enforcement of guidelines. A retail expert warned that confusion over rules could lead to “Covid-related abuse” in the aisles.
Paddy Lillis, the head of Usdaw, the shop workers’ union, said it was “deeply disappointing that the government has ploughed on with ending mandatory face coverings in shops” and that many retailers would “keep Covid safety measures in stores”.
Mark Harper, head of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said that it was reasonable for businesses to make requests but argued: “People should just be sensible and those [keen on masks] should not insist others wear them.” He said that “if you’re on a train and it’s rammed a lot of people will follow the request to wear a mask. If there are three people in the carriage it’s a bit pointless.”
Harper said that there would be “a bit of bumpiness” as people adjusted but added: “If people treat each other with courtesy and respect I think we will manage perfectly well. Before December when there wasn’t a legal requirement people managed that pretty well. I trust people to make sound decisions.”
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said it was “essential” that retailers clearly communicated their masks policy. He added: “Covid-related abuse, especially around the wearing of face coverings, has been a significant problem for retailers and colleagues throughout the pandemic, so we ask all customers to be respectful of the policies in place in their local shops.”
Plan B was imposed last month to slow the surge of cases of the Omicron variant. The requirement for NHS Covid passes for entry to large venues and nightclubs will also end. Fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK from 4am on February 11 will no longer need to take a day two lateral flow test.
Guidance to work from home if you can has been dropped as Johnson uses his handling of the Omicron wave to shore up support with sceptical backbenchers. He insisted yesterday that he shore up support with sceptical backbenchers. He insisted yesterday that he had “got all the big calls right” after getting through the wave with minimal restrictions and promised Britain would have “the fastest recovery from Covid of any European economy”.
However, with 102,292 cases of the virus reported in the UK yesterday, the end of the wave has flattened off as infections surge in children. One in eight primary school children were infected with Covid-19, the Office for National Statistics suggested yesterday. Another 346 deaths were reported within 28 days of a positive test, compared with 359 deaths on the previous Wednesday.
Johnson’s spokesman said that he would “exercise his judgment” on when to wear a mask. Government guidance continues to recommend them in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when people mix with others they do not normally meet.
Sainsbury’s said that “we’re asking our customers and colleagues in England to continue to wear a face covering in our stores if they are able to”, reasoning that “safety remains our highest priority”. John Lewis & Partners, which includes Waitrose, said: “We’ll be suggesting people wear masks in our stores, although it will be down to individuals to make a personal choice.”
Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Lidl are also expected to introduce a voluntary mask policy although none have released details of rules and guidance expected to come in today.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said that the removal of plan B measures would “enable shopping to return to a more normal experience for customers, employees and businesses”. She said: “Retailers ask customers to be considerate to those around them when choosing whether to wear a face covering and to respect the decision of other customers. Retailers continue to implement many other existing safety measures such as hand sanitiser and perspex screens.”
People on London’s public transport network will still be required to wear face coverings. Sadiq Khan, the mayor, called on people to “do the right thing”. Beyond the capital the Rail Delivery Group said that train operators would ask passengers to wear masks “out of courtesy to others”. A spokesman said: “We expect most passengers will do the right thing and follow this advice.”
Local directors of public health are also still able to recommend face coverings in communal areas of schools and colleges.
Despite the end of plan B, it is still a legal requirement for those with Covid-19 to self-isolate for ten days, with the option to end self-isolation after five full days following two negative lateral flow tests. Nightclubs and concert venues will be able to choose whether to ask for proof of vaccination or a negative test.