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We're dealing with fights over social distancing, we can't enforce face mask policy, say NI retail leaders

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Caitlin Lynch (right) and Anna Kirkwood wearing face masks as they browse in Stradivarius in Belfast City Centre. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Caitlin Lynch (right) and Anna Kirkwood wearing face masks as they browse in Stradivarius in Belfast City Centre. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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Caitlin Lynch (right) and Anna Kirkwood wearing face masks as they browse in Stradivarius in Belfast City Centre. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Retail leaders have said shop workers cannot be expected to enforce the mandatory wearing of face coverings, should it be introduced in Northern Ireland.

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced face coverings must be worn in all shops in England from July 24.

The Northern Ireland Executive has yet to announce any changes to its policy in shops, but a spokesperson said the matter was being kept "under continuous review".

It is mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has said it should be extended to include shops.

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said the policy should be enforced by police if it's to be introduced here.

Mr Roberts said that staff were already coming under pressure as they attempt to enforce social distancing guidelines.

He said Retail NI had received reports of scuffles between customers in shops after rows had broken out due to a lack of social distancing.

There have also been reports that shop staff had received threats for trying to enforce the rules.

"While these may be a small number of incidents and the vast majority comply with the rules, never the less it is important to highlight them," Mr Roberts said.

"We shouldn't forget that shop staff have been working throughout this pandemic to keep people supplied with essential goods and putting their own health at risk."

Glyn Roberts

He said the onus should not be on shop owners and their staff to enforce the rules.

"It would add to an already tense and difficult situation," Mr Roberts said.

“If it is introduced in Northern Ireland, like England, the police should enforce the regulations”

Mr Robers said shopkeepers union Usdaw shared the view that it was "unfair" to put staff in this position.

"It's up to the public to realise the responsibility they have," he said.

The Retail NI chief also called on the Executive to provide clarification around face coverings to allow shop owners the time to prepare.

"We will be led by the science and if it has to be introduced then it does," he said.

"However there will need to be intensive promotional campaigns to update the public to the changes and shops may need to make alterations as a result.

Mr Roberts said the main threat to Northern Ireland businesses remained complacency leading to a second wave of the virus.

He said that Northern Ireland's economy was already up against it and another wave leading to a second lockdown would be a "catastrophic", particularly for the retail and hospitality sectors.

Aodhan Connelly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, told the BBC that Northern Ireland is different to England because of a lower infection rate.

"However, it needs to be realised that retailers and our staff aren't there to do the enforcement of it and also we are going to need time to bring it in.

"The priority is always the safety of our staff and the safety of our customers."

An Executive Office spokesperson said that the public would be informed of any changes to the current policy.

“The use of face coverings is now mandatory on public transport, except where an exemption applies. They are also strongly recommended in indoor environments where social distancing may be difficult," the spokesperson said.

“The Executive keeps the issue of face coverings under continuous review and any changes to the advice will be communicated to the public.”

Belfast Telegraph