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Coronavirus: NI Health Minister Swann calls for face coverings in shops

robin swann

A Call by the Health Minister for mandatory face coverings in shops has split policing and retail unions over who will enforce the rules.

Robin Swann said yesterday that he will recommend the measure to the Executive.

The UK Government has already announced plans to make face coverings compulsory in retailers from July 24.

Mr Swann said that wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces "will have to become second nature" to prevent further spikes of Covid-19 in the autumn and winter.

He added that the measure would provide "clarity and reassurance" for the public and that he was backed by Northern Ireland's chief medical and scientific officers.

Mr Swann said it was also necessary to reassure vulnerable people as shielding measures are due to be paused on July 31.

Shopworkers union Usdaw said it should never fall on retailers to enforce face coverings, while the Police Federation of Northern Ireland said enforcement should be a last resort and officers couldn't be expected to respond to every incident.

Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said: "It is right to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory in shops, but we must recognise that expert advice says it is an additional protection on top of existing safety measures.

"Even if face coverings become mandatory in Northern Ireland, Usdaw is urging employers to stay with the established two-metre social distancing, using screens at tills and limiting the number of shoppers in store at any one time.

"We are clear that it should never fall on shopworkers to enforce the wearing of face coverings, they are already dealing with more abuse than normal and this could be another flashpoint.

"Our members would need clarity on age identification procedures under the 'Think-25' policy when a customer is wearing a face covering."

Mr Lillis said a public information campaign was also needed detailing the correct use of face coverings and who is exempt.

The Police Federation called for a partnership approach between officers, shop owners and the public.

"Enforcement will play a part but that will most likely be a last resort. However, retailers must also take some responsibility for encouraging customers to comply," it said.

"The police cannot deal with this in isolation and will rely on society as a whole taking responsibility.

"We anticipate a situation where people generally will wish to willingly comply to limit the spread of the virus and help society return to the nearest we can get to pre-lockdown conditions.

"Officers will, of course, intervene in situations where there is a refusal to comply but we would sincerely hope that this will only be in exceptional circumstances."

It warned that limited police resources could not be stretched unnecessarily and that more serious crime and public safety remained paramount.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said a shift in evidence had now strengthened the case for face coverings.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said it was a "sensible" option to reduce the risk of a second outbreak.

"The need to ensure that we are not overwhelmed by any new wave of Covid-19 is paramount," he said.

"Spikes and outbreaks across our nation, islands and beyond show that until a proven vaccine arrives, we must take precautions such as wearing face coverings."

The PSNI has yet to comment on the minister's proposals.

Belfast Telegraph