MPs have urged the government to clarify its position on face masks, after Boris Johnson hinted that it could become compulsory to wear them in shops.
Johnson said on Friday that ministers were “looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings, in shops, for example”, to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The comments were welcomed by the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, who urged the government to conclude its review on face masks rapidly “to provide the strong and clear guidance needed”.
“It’s welcome ministers looking at evidence and international best practice again on face masks,” he tweeted. “There is an emerging consensus face masks play an important role in places beyond just public transport and hospitals. People simply want clarity from government.”
He called on ministers to provide face masks to Leicester residents, and those living in other areas which go into local lockdown.
On Saturday, the Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt called for simple government messaging and said he favoured wearing masks in shops.
“I understand the public health advice, which is that if there’s a risk of being less than 2 metres close to someone then you should wear it but if not you don’t have to,” the chairman of the Commons health and social care committee told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But it doesn’t answer the basic question, which is: ‘If I’m going shopping, should I wear a face mask or not?’
“And I think with public health advice in a pandemic you just need simplicity, so I would favour saying we should wear face masks in shops.”
The crime and policing minister, Kit Malthouse, when asked about face coverings, said there was a “common sense element” to the wearing of masks.
“We’re learning as we go and our response has to be agile, and if the science is developing towards masks as a good mitigation in circumstances where you can’t maintain the 2 metres [social distancing], then obviously the government will look at that and make a recommendation as to how people should behave,” he told Times Radio Breakfast.
“But to be perfectly honest with you, you know, certainly most of the people I talk to, there’s a kind of common sense element to it.”
On Friday, face covering became compulsory in Scottish shops, but people do not have to wear them in stores in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Masks are mandatory on public transport in England, and official guidance says people should also wear them in shops and other enclosed spaces.
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
Senior scientists have urged ministers to wear masks in public more often to set a good example.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, was pictured without a mask while serving a meal to customers in a restaurant following his mini-budget this week, and he has also been photographed bumping elbows with people as a greeting.
Johnson was pictured wearing one in public for the first time on Friday while visiting businesses in his Uxbridge constituency.
During a social media Q&A session the same day, the prime minister said: “As we get the virus down, in the way that we have, and we stamp out local outbreaks in the way that we are, I do think we need to be stricter in insisting that people wear face coverings in confined places.”