Boris Johnson has urged the public in England to wear masks in shops as “extra insurance” against the coronavirus, and hinted the government could be poised to make them mandatory.
Downing Street has also hinted that guidance encouraging employees to work from home where possible is under review, after Johnson suggested workers could return if effective protective measures were in place.
The prime minister said evidence “has been growing” on the effectiveness of wearing masks in public spaces, after coming under pressure to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory in England in line with the more stringent guidance in Scotland.
He told Sky News the government would be looking at the scientific evidence and “saying more in the next few days”.
“The scientific evidence of face coverings, and the importance of stopping aerosol droplets; that’s been growing,” Johnson said. “So I do think that in shops it is very important to wear a face covering.”
He added: “Face coverings are an extra insurance we can all use to stop it coming back, and stop it getting out of control again.”
Asked specifically whether face coverings would be made mandatory in shops in England, as they already are on public transport, he said the government was considering what “tools of enforcement” would be used to increase compliance.
Johnson’s comments came as Downing Street said the government has been acquiring new production capacity for masks and PPE, a sign that a rise in demand is anticipated.
“We are increasing our capacity to manufacture face masks in the UK,” the Number 10 spokesman said.
“Lord Agnew is leading the drive to ensure face mask manufacturing ability and to increase production of PPE. Further details will be provided in due course.”
The Daily Mail reported that 10 factory production lines had been acquired.
Johnson was photographed wearing a face covering for the first time on Friday, coinciding with an information campaign from the government to nudge people to wear masks in shops.
No 10 denied the government was lagging behind other countries in responding swiftly to new evidence on mask wearing. “We’ve always said we’ll keep it under review and so have the experts who advise the government,” Johnson’s spokesman said, pointing to new evidence on aerosol transmission.
The government had come under pressure to clarify the rules. The prime minister had hinted on Friday of a stricter regime, but the cabinet office minister, Michael Gove, said on Sunday he thought masks should not be mandatory.
People over 60 or with health issues should wear a medical-grade mask when they are out and cannot socially distance, according to new guidance from the World Health Organization, 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
“I don’t think mandatory, no, but I would encourage people to wear a face mask, where they are inside, in an environment where they are likely to be mixing with others and the ventilation may not be as good as it might,” Gove said.
“It is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration to wear a face mask if, for example, you’re in a shop.”
Downing Street is also poised to change the guidance about working from home as the prime minister sought to clear up confusion about whether the government is encouraging the public to return to the workplace.
In his “People’s PMQs” session on Friday, he had said people should be returning to work, but official government guidance continues to say, “stay at home as much as possible”. Johnson’s spokesman said that was “under review”.
Johnson said more people should be returning to work but only where changes have been made to ensure their workplace is safe.
“People have gone to huge lengths to make their businesses Covid-secure: so they’re installing washing facilities, they’re installing screens, they’re installing social distancing measures – doing all sorts of things to make the workplace safe.
“And what I want to see is people now who have been working from home for a long time, talking to employers, talking to their place of work about the steps that have been taken, and looking to come back to work in a safe way – and that’s got to be the key thing,” he said.
Labour called for urgent clarity on the issues, saying it was vital the public knew they were acting in line with government advice. In a letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said: “As lockdown rules are further relaxed this week, it is vital that updated guidance on this issue is published by the government without delay.”
In his interview, Johnson also said he would be having a “staycation”, this year, rather than travelling abroad.
“There are fantastic, peerless, wonderful, superlative places in the UK to go on holiday, and that is certainly what I will be doing,” he said.