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Calls to clear up the mask muddle

THE muddled messages being received by the public over the rules on masks are risking both lives and the economy, the government was warned yesterday.

As the nation continued its return to work, Michael Gove — who was not wearing a face covering — insisted ‘good manners’ were enough to persuade people to put one on. Just 36 hours earlier, a mask-clad Boris Johnson promised a crackdown on avoiders.

The cabinet office minister said it was time to ‘fire up the economic engines’ amid growing confusion over why masks were compulsory on public transport but not in shops or offices.

‘We want to see more people back at work, on the shop floor, in the office, wherever they can be,’ he told Sky News, as the official UK death toll rose another 21 to 44,819. ‘I think that it is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration to wear a face mask if you are, for example, in a shop.’

But Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said: ‘The government is urging people to get back on to public transport and spend money in shops. Both are enclosed environments where physical distancing may not always be possible.

‘It sends out a confusing message to say face coverings are mandatory in one setting but not the other.

‘Suggesting it is “good manners” to wear one is insufficient. Ministers need to send the simple message that it is expected. The easiest and clearest way to do this would be to make it compulsory to wear a face covering in shops and other enclosed public places.’ She added: ‘In Scotland (where masks are compulsory in shops), I’ve already noticed a big difference in the number of people wearing them, compared to last week when it was not.’

The professor’s warning came as England’s nail bars, tattooists and spas are allowed to reopen today.

The prime minister appeared wearing a mask for the first time on Friday, and his aides told newspapers it was a ‘fair assumption’ masks in shops would become obligatory within weeks. Yet in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Mr Gove said there was ‘concern’ that making facemasks mandatory ‘might make some a little cavalier’.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said the government should ‘get its act together’, insisting masks were ‘vital for public health’. Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said Labour would support mandatory face coverings inside shops, as it ‘would inspire greater confidence and might encourage more people to go out and spend money’.

Calling for ‘greater clarity’ from government, she added: ‘People want to do the right thing but they want to know what the right thing is.’

Mr Johnson called for people to return to work after chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled his £30billion ‘coronavirus budget’. And the government is preparing to relax advice on avoiding public transport. Passenger numbers on trains are at only 13 per cent of normal levels, and people are still avoiding city centres.

‘Our message is to wear masks indoors and to wear masks in public places,’ said Prof Anthony Costello, of the government’s Sage advisory group. ‘Ministers should be setting a good example. And they’re not.’