As legislation requiring UK residents to wear face masks in shops came into effect on 24 July, an online row erupted over decisions by some of the nation’s biggest retail brands not to enforce the measure.
In various tweets and statements, supermarket chains including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op confirmed that their in-store staff would not prevent mask-free customers from entering their premises – announcements that forced significant numbers of social media users to question how effective the law would be if such brands were unwilling to give it their practical support.
According to press coverage, Tesco said that the law “will be for the police to enforce”, while Sainsbury’s told the public that it “won’t be challenging customers without a mask”. Setting out the chain’s policy in further detail, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “Posters will be displayed inside and outside our stores and there will be regular tannoy announcements asking customers to follow the new rules. But our colleagues will not be responsible for enforcing them.” (Independent, 24 July 2020)
Co-op CEO Jo Whitfield explained: “We’ll have in-store signage on the new rules around face coverings but we are clear that shop workers should not enforce the new legislation. On a daily basis they face abuse, threatening behaviour and even physical assault. Our own figures show that during the Covid-19 crisis such instances have risen and enforcing the wearing of face masks could be another flashpoint.” (The Guardian, 24 July 2020)
On the day before the legislation went live, British Retail Consortium (BRC) director of business and regulation Tom Ironside said: “While enforcement of this policy will be handled by the police, the ultimate responsibility remains with customers who must ensure that they wear a face covering when going into stores. Our shopping experience is changing, and we ask customers to be respectful and considerate when the new rules come into force tomorrow.” (BRC Press Office, 23 July 2020)
However, the following morning, Police Federation of England and Wales national chairman John Apter signalled displeasure with the retail industry’s stance. “It is our members who are expected to police what is a new way of living,” he said, “and I would urge retail outlets to play their part in making the rules crystal clear: if you are not wearing a face covering then you are not coming in.” (Evening Standard, 24 July 2020)
Have UK retail leaders blown a valuable opportunity to show leadership on masks, support the police, throw their weight behind vital legislation and contribute to the broader, national recovery from Covid-19?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It’s important to remember that, like all other businesses, the big retailers have a duty of care to their employees. And the workers on the doors who are handing out sanitised baskets, ensuring that customers observe social distancing and keeping an eye on the number of people who are in the store at any one time are among the lowest-paid members of staff – certainly in the context of the major supermarket brands.”
She notes: “As the Co-op’s Jo Whitfield identified, a confrontational flashpoint, whereby a member of staff tries to make a customer do something they don’t want to do, is potentially a really unpleasant situation. And when you’re an employer with a duty of care to your staff, it’s your job not to put them in unpleasant situations. Some supermarket branches have already hired security personnel to prevent store workers from bearing the brunt of Covid-related tensions, so we can see that within the sector, this issue is clearly at the forefront of leaders’ minds. And of course, those safeguards will have costs attached to them.”
Cooper stresses: “This is a much more difficult and complex proposition than saying simply, ‘From now on, everyone must wear face masks in shops.’ While the policy may well have been sensible, I think we needed more in terms of information and awareness that would have supported the very retailers who are meant to implement it – coupled with a greater understanding of the position of the frontline staff who are meant to do the enforcing.”
She adds: “It is impossible to simultaneously look after employees in line with your duty of care and put them in situations with particularly high levels of conflict and disagreement. That’s what these retailers have recognised, and that’s the position they have taken.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace