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England makes masks compulsory in shops after months without guidance

"The U.K. government has a history of doing things rather late in the day," said a professor of health psychology. "It seems to be part of a pattern."
Image: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask, boards an ambulance during a visit to the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust in London
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boards an ambulance during a visit to the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust in London on Monday.Ben Stansall / AP

LONDON — Hand sanitizer, social distancing and limits on the number of people in any one place: Coronavirus precautions have been ubiquitous in the U.K. There is, however, one notable exception — masks.

The politically fraught conversation around masks that has taken place in the United States has been largely absent in England. Since the lockdown began lifting here last month, it has been rare to see the country's top politicians or royals in masks, and according to opinion polls, few people on the street have been wearing them.

At last, that could now be changing.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced Tuesday that masks will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets from Friday, July 24. Anyone caught in a shop without one could have to pay a 100 pound ($125) fine, although children and people with disabilities are exempt.

"There is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from Coronavirus," said a spokesperson for 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence.

"The Prime Minister has been clear that people should be wearing face coverings in shops and we will make this mandatory from July 24."

Scotland, which sets its own health policies, has already made masks in shops compulsory, following countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece.

Image: Rishi Sunak
Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, left, greets an employee during a visit to a factory in Worcester, England, on Thursday. Phil Noble / AP

Johnson has repeatedly hinted that a change was coming on mask guidance and London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also pressed the national government to require masks in public places. Masks are already required on public transport in England and Scotland, but not yet in Wales until July 27.

Britain has Europe's highest death toll in the pandemic, with nearly 45,000 coronavirus-related deaths, and almost 290,000 recorded cases.

It also lags significantly behind Italy, Spain, France and Germany in the number of people wearing masks when out in public, according to YouGov polls. In early July, 36 percent of U.K. respondents said they wore a mask in public places, compared to 83 percent in Italy and 86 percent in Spain, Europe's hardest-hit countries after the U.K.

"The U.K. government has a history of doing things rather late in the day, starting from lockdown, PPE, test, trace and isolate — it seems to be part of a pattern," said Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and a member of a group of experts that releases pandemic-related research in a bid to change government policy.

"There isn't a tradition or culture of wearing face coverings, so we are starting on the back foot. More needs to be done to make it a routine behavior compared to other countries where they are more used to this."

After reopening its doors after lockdown, the Little Apple Bookshop in York asked that all customers entering its 400-square-foot store wear masks. The response in the first week was shock and even anger from some customers.

"We thought it was common sense and didn't think it would be controversial at all," said owner Philippa Morris. "We opened and were really surprised that some people thought it was strange."

Over the last week however, Morris said that's changed. "Now that people are coming out more into town, they are saying they like it," she said.

Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle show that the adoption of universal masks in the U.K. could result in around 20,000 fewer deaths by November.

A model published by the Royal Society also found that masks could significantly cut the spread of the virus.

"One of key features of this outbreak is that people are asymptomatic for a period of time, but they are still able to infect others," said Richard Stutt, one of the article's authors and a post-doctoral research associate in the epidemiology and modeling group at the University of Cambridge.

"We saw that it was at least twice as effective to have people wear masks all the time than after they became symptomatic."

For Ben Walker, a teacher of children with special needs in the northeast England town of Hull, wearing a mask in public feels strange when he doesn't wear one at work. He said his school discouraged teachers from wearing masks all the time so students could more easily connect with them.

Walker, however, said that with clearer messaging from the government, he would be willing to wear a mask when out in public.

"There is a real lack of clarity from the government in this country, England specifically, around the wearing of face masks," he said, "and that leads to difficulties for a lot of people."