Making face masks compulsory to enter shops here will drive shoppers away from an already struggling high street, a DUP MP has said.
Sammy Wilson questioned the logic of Northern Ireland following Scotland and England now, given that the measure was not introduced at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
His opposition comes as the Executive is facing pressure to make face coverings compulsory to enter stores here later this month. England has introduced fines of up to £100 for anyone who is caught not complying with the rule.
Health Minister Robin Swann has said he would be recommending the measure to be introduced here, saying he had the backing of Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Officer Prof Ian Young.
“I have no wish to pre-empt Executive decisions, but I am firmly of the view that everything possible must be done to encourage the wearing of face coverings in retail stores,” he said.
“We need to promote every available measure to stop the spread of Covid-19, both now and into the autumn and winter, given the risk of further waves of infection.”
But Mr Wilson, the East Antrim MP, said Mr Swann’s changed position on the issue at this stage was astounding.
“It is surprising that at a time when we are supposed to be emerging into a greater degree of normality that the Health Minister is supporting a move towards the mandatory use of face masks in shops,” he said.
“Even at the height of the pandemic, the minister and his experts were questioning the value of face masks, other than in environments of extreme risk such as hospitals, care homes etc.
“Many shops stayed open and did regular, normal business at the height of the pandemic. Customers were not required to wear face masks, yet there was no massive outbreak of coronavirus amongst shop workers.”
First of all, this will only reinforce the fear of many, who — having had the life scared out of them by warnings of death on a biblical scale — will feel that it remains unsafe to come outSammy Wilson
Mr Wilson continued: “Now at a time when we are trying to entice people out of their homes, back to work and back to normal commercial behaviour in order to restore the economy, we are faced with the likely compulsory wearing of face masks in shops.
“First of all, this will only reinforce the fear of many, who — having had the life scared out of them by warnings of death on a biblical scale — will feel that it remains unsafe to come out.
“Secondly, for those who do not want to wear face masks, it will decrease footfall on our high streets.”
His stark warning comes as it was reported on Thursday that employers here proposed almost 2,500 redundancies in June — the highest monthly figure on record.
Meanwhile, Dr Agoritsa Baka, chief expert at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, has said persuading the public to wear masks could be more effective than making it an offence that is difficult to police.
Mr Wilson also questioned how and who would be responsible for enforcing such a policy, saying the wearing of face masks should be a matter for the individual only.
He said people here had accepted a “degree of state interference” in their lives which should never be regarded as a “permanent arrangement”.
“As we try to move towards a form of normality, surely the level of state interference in our lives should also be reduced, not increased,” he added.
Currently it is only mandatory for face masks to be worn while using public transport such as buses, trains and ferries.
Exemptions include those who cannot wear face coverings for medical reasons and children aged under 13. The Equality Commission has warned that shops have a duty under the Disability Discrimination Act to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate customers who cannot wear face masks, should it become mandatory.
However, it said the law “recognises there may be limits to what the reasonable adjustment duty requires”, and it does not “oblige employers to compromise the health and safety of their employees”.
The PSNI was asked if it would have a role in enforcing such a mask policy. However, a response was not received at the time of going to press.