Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, argued during broadcast interviews on Sunday that the approach on mask mandates made sense.
“Doing it in this proportionate way where it’s for public transport, it’s for retail outlets, I think is the right level of response on masks,” he said on Sky News.
“It will be via government regulation and that means, I think, that people will take it seriously.”
Pressed on whether people would follow the rules on masks, Mr Javid said: “I do think people will take this more seriously. It’s important, I think, to act in a proportionate way and also in a temporary way.”
Privately, a senior government source questioned whether wearing a face mask in a pub or restaurant while entering or walking to the toilet but not while seated was really effective.
The source said the Government wanted to move quickly over the weekend and “keep it simple” on masks, hence why shops and public transport were selected. Three cases of the variant have now been detected in England.
‘Major issues about enforcement’
A union has warned, however, that public transport faces a “high degree of non-compliance” on masks.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, said it would be train workers who would be left to deal with angry passengers who did not want to wear masks.
“We support the wearing of masks but there are major issues about enforcement and it is our members left in the front line with angry passengers who refuse to comply,” he said.
He called on the Government to make “resources available to police this reintroduction of masks”, and urged the Government to end its “disjointed approach and get some consistency that avoids the chaos and confusion that is a hallmark of this administration”.
Mr Lynch’s thoughts were echoed by Unite’s national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton.
He said: “The Government’s previous inconsistent messaging on face-mask wearing is almost certainly going to result in a high degree of non-compliance.
“Unite’s advice to bus drivers is clear: it is not their role to enforce mask wearing, their responsibility is to safely drive and operate the bus. The job of enforcing mask wearing is that of the bus operator and the police.”
Mr Morton added that Unite had previously said the requirement to wear face coverings “should never have been removed while rates of Covid-19 remained high” and said it was only the development of the new variant, omicron, that had “forced the Government to act”.
Meanwhile shop workers are said to be “extremely concerned” about any abuse they might experience while trying to police the use of masks in store.
James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said: “We are helping retailers to prepare for the change in face-covering rules, but they are extremely concerned about abuse against their staff from customers who don’t want to wear a face covering in a shop.
We will continue to urge stores to communicate the rules, but not to challenge those who refuse to abide by the rules.”
The UK’s supermarkets have said they are waiting for advice from the Government and will be keeping their staff and customers informed.