Retail bosses have warned that they cannot be expected to enforce new rules requiring staff and customers to wear masks in shops.
New face covering rules came into force in England on Tuesday in response to concerns over the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), stressed that it is the role of the authorities to enforce these new regulations, adding that customers also have a responsibility to adhere to the rules.
“Retailers will be communicating the new rules on face coverings in England through in-store signage and other channels,” she said.
“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.”
It is the latest challenge for retailers ahead of the key Christmas period. They have already seen pressure from supply chain disruption and labour shortages.
Ms Dickinson added: “While there may be small changes in the way we shop, we ask people to be considerate and we remain confident that everyone can get what they need for a fun and festive Christmas this year.”
Meanwhile, Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland grocery chain, said he will not be asking staff to police the mask rules among customers.
“The first thing to say is that of course we support the reintroduction of compulsory face masks in shops and there is no doubt that the emergence of this Omicron variant is really concerning,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Safety of staff and customers is of course a priority.
“But the question isn’t whether or not we should mandate face masks, but whether we can mandate them.
“What I won’t be doing is asking my store colleagues to police those who refuse to adhere to the rules.
“They are already working under significant pressure, particularly as we hit the busiest trading month of the year.”
Retail bosses have warned that they have seen rising violence and abuse against shop workers in recent years, but that this has been further exacerbated by the pandemic and enforcement of Covid regulations in stores.
Sainsbury’s told customers in an email on Tuesday morning that they will need a face covering to enter stores, unless they are exempt.
Chief executive Simon Roberts said: “From today, everyone in England must wear a face covering when shopping or working in our stores, unless they are exempt.
“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.
“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 – thank you for your ongoing support.”
Aldi UK chief executive Giles Hurley said: “The safety of our colleagues and customers is our number one priority.
“Following the latest Government announcement, wearing a face covering will be mandatory for everyone that shops at Aldi from Tuesday November 30, except for those who have a medical exemption.”
People will also now be required to wear face coverings and masks on public transport.
The Unite trade union has called for face coverings to also become mandatory in pubs, cafes and restaurants after they were not included in the rule change.
General secretary Sharon Graham said: “We must ask why hospitality is the only area in the public arena where face masks are not compulsory.
“Does the Government consider the health and safety of hospitality workers less of a priority than that of workers in other sectors?
“It is outrageous that hospitality workers are being left to police the wearing of face masks due to the lack of proper mandatory rules or effective legislation.”