A new law making it mandatory to wear a face mask in shops and supermarkets in England could backfire, a leading official in the EU’s agency for disease control has warned, after police officers said it would be unenforceable.
Dr Agoritsa Baka, chief expert on emergency preparedness at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said persuasion could be more effective given the evident difficulties in policing the rule.
The obligation to wear a face covering in English shops will come in to force on 24 July. Anyone who fails to wear one can be fined up to £100 by the police, reduced to £50 if they pay within 14 days.
But Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation (MPF) has already said it will be “nigh-on impossible” for officers to enforce the rule and there has been confused messaging from government ministers.
Baka said in an interview with the Guardian that there was evidence that masks could prevent infected people passing on the disease in situations where physical distancing is not possible, but that it would be better to convince people of the benefits than to make empty threats.
She said: “In public health we don’t like very much the mandatory stuff. We want to persuade people to do something to change their behaviour.
“It has been shown that it kind of comes back as a boomerang. When you make something mandatory you need to have a way to enforce it otherwise it is ridiculed by the public and is not very effective in the end.”
The ECDC’s official guidance further warns that the use of face masks is not a replacement for “physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, meticulous hand hygiene and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth”.Q&A
Coronavirus: should everyone be wearing face masks?
Some countries and states have been recommending that everybody wears face masks in indoor settings where social distancing is difficult or impossible. They have been made mandatory on public transport or in shops in many countries.
According to guidance from the World Health Organization, people over 60 or with health issues should wear a medical-grade mask when they are out and cannot socially distance, while all others should wear a three-layer fabric mask.
The WHO guidance, announced on 5 June, is a result of research commissioned by the organisation. It is still unknown whether the wearers of masks are protected, say its experts, but the new design it advocates does give protection to other people if properly used.
The WHO says masks should be made of three layers – with cotton closest to the face, followed by a polypropylene layer and then a synthetic layer that is fluid-resistant. These are no substitute for physical distancing and hand hygiene, it says, but should be worn in situations where distancing is difficult, such as on public transport and at mass demonstrations.
The WHO has been reluctant to commit to recommending face coverings, firstly because the evidence on whether they offer any protection to the public is limited and – more importantly – because it was afraid it would lead to shortages of medical-grade masks for health workers.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
Labour has claimed ministers are in a “complete muddle” over the policy. Cabinet minister Michael Gove had insisted just days before a government U-turn that face coverings would not be mandatory in shops.
Further confusion was caused when Gove and the trade secretary, Liz Truss, were pictured separately on Tuesday leaving a branch of Pret a Manger, with only the latter wearing a face covering.
The business secretary, Alok Sharma, on Thursday then contradicted the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on the issue. Sharma said that people picking up a takeaway from a cafe would not be required to wear a mask - but that mask-wearing was to be encouraged.
Face masks are already obligatory in shops in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Belgium. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has said he also wants to toughen up the rules.
Baka said: “A lot of countries have a recommendation now. A lot of central European countries have made it mandatory and in Greece in some professions, for example serving.”
But she added that there needed to be further studies into whether people were continuing to wear masks given the light policing.
Baka, who has been based in Greece during the pandemic, said: “My personal feeling is that here in Greece it is starting to fade. At the beginning they were really doing it but now they are starting to get tired. You see people with masks hanging down.”