Enforcing face covering rules in UK shops could be “impossible” when they become mandatory later this month, a police representative has said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged shop staff to call the police if customer defy their demands to wear masks and risk a £100 fine.
Mr Hancock told MPs: “Should an individual without an exemption refuse to wear a face covering, a shop can refuse them entry and can call the police if people refuse to comply.
“The police have formal enforcement powers and can issue a fine.”
But Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, issued a warning over enforcing the new law and called on shopkeepers to “step up to the plate” and take some responsibility.
“It will be nigh-on impossible for enforcement because you won’t have a police officer on every shop door because there isn’t enough of us,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“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.
“We’ll be driving around London looking for people who weren’t wearing masks, it’s absolutely absurd.”
Mr Hancock said making masks mandatory was an essential step to get the retail economy moving.
He told the Commons: “The death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75% higher among men and 60% higher among women than in the general population.”
He said the new rule would “give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops”.
There has been widespread opposition to the move, with many commentators online branding surgical face masks “muzzles” and claiming the masks will prevent oxygen from reaching the lungs.
However the Government has made it clear anyone who fails to comply with the new rules will face a fine of up to £100.
National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt said the delay before implementation would give them time to work with the Home Office on the legislation.
“As with other coronavirus regulations, we will follow an approach of engaging, explaining, encouraging and only enforcing where encouragement has been unsuccessful,” he added.
Also raising questions over enforcement, the latest data showed not a single person in England and Wales was fined by police for breaching quarantine rules after arriving from abroad.
And only 10 tickets were handed out to passengers for not wearing face coverings on public transport, the figures released by the NPCC on Friday showed.
JD Sports chief executive Peter Cowgill suggested his stores will offer face coverings to anyone not wearing them but said it will not be for his staff to enforce the law.
“The guidance so far is that our store colleagues are not really to get involved and it’s a police matter to enforce rather than for them to get involved in any potential public disturbances,” he told Today.
Mr Cowgill also criticised the delay to introducing the measure, saying “it will have an impact on consumer confidence” as he blamed ministers for “inconsistencies and the indecisiveness”.
Senior Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Sunday he did not believe they should be mandatory and that it was better to “trust people’s common sense”.
The Government has been urging people to wear face coverings in confined spaces such as shops since early May and they have already been made compulsory on public transport in England since mid-June.
The regulations will be made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, with a maximum fine of £100 – reduced to £50 if it is paid within 14 days.
As is the case on public transport, children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt.