Face masks will become mandatory in shops and enclosed spaces, Boris Johnson has indicated, as he said it was time for the country to “go back to work”.
The Prime Minister, who posed in a face covering for the first time on Friday, said the Government needed to be “stricter” on enforcing guidelines for wearing them indoors.
He said: “We increasingly think we have to insist in confined spaces – transport, shops – wear a face covering.”
Government sources confirmed that making it mandatory in shops and other enclosed spaces was under discussion following a hardening of the scientific advice on their effectiveness in preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson’s shift in tone on face coverings came in conjunction with a marked change in his advice to workers.
Until now, he has asked people to work from home, but on Friday made it clear the time had come for the nation to return to the workplace where possible, to help restart the economy.
He said: “It’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can now. I want to see more people feeling confident to use the shops, use the restaurants, get back into work, but only if we all follow the guidance.”
On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced £30 billion in giveaways to encourage “cautious” people to return to pubs, restaurants, shops and attractions, which were allowed to reopen last weekend.
Many retailers have remained closed, particularly in town centres, as office workers on whom they rely for much of their trade were still mostly working from home.
Mr Johnson’s change of tack on face coverings and returning to workplaces, made during an online “People’s Prime Minister’s Questions” session from Downing Street, was clearly designed to persuade millions of people to return to pre-lockdown work patterns and start spending again.
His decision to wear a £2 Poundstretcher face covering during a visit to local businesses in his Uxbridge constituency followed days of criticism of ministers for failing to set an example by being seen in public wearing them.
Asked if he was planning to extend where face coverings would be mandatory, he said: “As we get the numbers down in the way that we have and we really stamp out outbreaks in the way that we are, I do think we need to be stricter in insisting people wear face coverings in confined spaces where they are meeting people they don’t normally meet. That’s why it’s mandatory already on public transport.
“We are looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings in shops, for instance, where there is a risk of transmission.”
Face coverings are already compulsory in shops in Scotland, and Mr Johnson said the “balance of scientific opinion” had shifted toward using them in all enclosed spaces.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation said there was “emerging evidence” that Covid-19 could be spread through particles in the air, and Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said everyone should wear a face covering in all public places.
Ministers have extensive powers under public health laws to enforce measures in premises such as shops, and one senior source said: “We are keeping evidence around masks under review and shops could be one area we move on.”
Despite widespread easing of lockdown measures, town centres remained largely deserted because of people following government advice to work from home where possible.
Established high street names such as Pret a Manger have warned they could close for good because of the lack of footfall.
However, many firms have told staff they do not expect them to return to the office until next year.
Mr Johnson said: “Everybody has taken the ‘stay at home if you can’ advice. I think we should now say ‘go back to work if you can’, because I think it’s very important people should try to lead their lives more normally.”
Asked about the Government’s furlough scheme, he said: “Furlough just keeps people in suspended animation when the best thing is to cautiously go back to work. That is the best thing.”
He appeared to be at odds with Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who told the women’s club AllBright that the Government could legislate to give people a legal right to work from home.
Mr Hancock said the coronavirus pandemic had made flexible working the “new norm” and was something all “good employers” should accommodate from now on.
Asked if he would consider enforcing this through government legislation, Mr Hancock replied: “Yes.”
He also called for a study to be done into the “efficacy” of remote working, though he said the broader benefits of the practice – particularly for women – made it worth sustaining in the long term.
“There’s a debate as to whether people work better when they’re working from home and it’s really difficult to know whether productivity goes up or down, but we’ve just had a massive experiment in that and we need to understand the answer,” he said.
“There’s a big argument that productivity has gone up during this when people are working from home, certainly in terms of wellbeing.”
He said one of the main beneficiaries of home working was women.
“Evidence shows (flexible working) on average benefits women more than men,” he said.
Mr Johnson said the infection rate in the UK was down to about 1 in 3,600 people and “seems to be tapering off ” but warned that in other countries “people misinterpret the messages and, boom, you get spikes again. We can’t have that in this country”.
Mr Johnson added that he did not want to see another national lockdown, but said people who were shielding would be protected in more localised ways.