It was four months ago that Boris Johnson abolished legal requirements to wear masks in public places in England. Now, the emergence of the Omicron variant has forced a u-turn. From today, face coverings have become mandatory in shops and on public transport – at least, until the changes are reviewed in three weeks’ time.

Hypothetically speaking, it’s a rule shoppers should be accustomed to, given that masks were a legal requirement until as recently as July. But as trade union Usdaw has warned, the “flip-flopping” of Covid-19 measures could create a tricky environment for retail workers.

Unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – where face masks have remained a consistent rule – England has a sense of going backwards. Given that face mask requirements created flashpoints for abuse even before this latest development, shopworkers could bear the brunt of the frustration. As Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis simply puts it: “The different rules across the UK create confusion, reduce compliance and can lead to conflict.”

It may only be a small minority of shoppers causing this conflict, but the impact is sizeable. According to the Association of Convenience Stores’ 2021 Crime Report, reminding customers of face coverings was the main trigger for Covid-19 related abuse. Some 65% of shopworkers witnessed pandemic-related threats towards staff, including being coughed and spat at. 

So this time around, it makes sense that many retailers are simply encouraging the use of masks, rather than enforcing them. In the wake of the new requirements, ACS CEO James Lowman had this advice for convenience stores: “We will continue to urge stores to communicate the rules, but not to challenge those who refuse to abide by them.”

That stance is being adopted by independent convenience retailers who have spoken to The Grocer. One Stop franchisee Aman Uppal says mask wearing is a “good thing” for his store, but points out it is hard to enforce when it can lead to customer confrontations. Londis retailer Atul Sodha also says he won’t enforce masks unless he notices customers feeling uncomfortable around shoppers who aren’t wearing them.

Among the large grocers (and other major multiples) the message is largely the same. BRC CEO Helen Dickinson said retailers should use in-store signage to communicate the rules, but stressed it was “vital that we do not place hard-working retail staff in harm’s way”.

The truth is retailers can neither afford to alienate shoppers nor risk the safety of their colleagues.

The Co-op has been clear that it will continue to serve customers not wearing a mask. “As throughout the pandemic, we support our customers wearing a face covering when shopping in our stores,” said a spokesman. “It’s not our place to enforce face coverings or to refuse to serve a customer who chooses not to wear one.” 

Other chains including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Waitrose are sounding a sterner note, stating they require all customers to wear face coverings unless medically exempt. Sainsbury’s, for example, will be “putting up new signs and posters 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.” 

But the sad truth is, these rules – ones that are designed to protect staff – may put them in harm’s way if enforced. So no one can blame the retail sector if, given previous experience, staff take a less stringent approach when it comes to enforcement.