Workers could be made to wear face masks in offices as MP refuses to rule it out

14 July 2020, 17:32

George Eustice refused to rule out making face masks mandatory in offices as he defended Government policy
George Eustice refused to rule out making face masks mandatory in offices as he defended Government policy. Picture: PA

By Matt Drake

Workers could soon be required to wear face masks in offices after the Government announced today they will be compulsory in shops.

The move follows a weekend of confusion over whether ministers intended to make face coverings compulsory after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they were looking at "stricter" rules.

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".

But in a major U-turn, the prime minister has announced that masks will be required in shops from 24 July otherwise customers could face a £100 fine.

Today, Environment Secretary George Eustice refused to rule out making masks a requirement in offices as he defended Government policy.

When asked if he would extend the rule to offices, he said: "At the moment we take one step at a time and we've taken the view in this next step that we should make it mandatory in retail environments.

"When it comes to workplace environments, because people are in the same company throughout the day, there are not lots of people coming through the venue as you have in a retail environment.

"The risk of transmission is therefore lower."

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.

For Labour, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said ministers needed to explain why it had taken them so long to act.

"The Government has been slow and muddled again over face coverings," he said.

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But the evidence for wearing masks is still controversial and a report today suggests the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its policy on masks due to political lobbying.

The WHO said from the offset of the pandemic that masks are little use outside clinical settings and this advice was also reiterated by UK Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries who in March said masks could even increase the risk of infection.

As recently as June, the Government released a report on keeping workers and customers safe in retail which said: "The evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small."

Critics of the Government claim the Prime Minister has merely ceded to political pressure and many people on Twitter today have posted pictures of destroyed Conservatives membership cards.

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 National Police Chiefs' Council on Friday showed.

Mr Eustice said the measure, which had been in place in Scotland since Friday, was now backed by the Westminster Government because the evidence "has been evolving".

The Government also claim masks will give customers "confidence" to go back to the high-street.

It comes as economic projections predict a major recession as a result of shutting down the economy.

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