Senior minister Michael Gove has said he does not think face coverings should be compulsory in shops in England, saying he trusts people’s common sense.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Mr Gove said wearing a mask in a shop was “basic good manners”.
On Friday, Boris Johnson said a “stricter” approach was needed so people wear masks in confined spaces.
Senior government sources have said the issue is being kept under review, as Labour called for clarity on the issue.
Currently, face coverings are compulsory on public transport in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
In Scotland, they are also mandatory in shops. Wales recommends masks but they are not compulsory.
However, there have been calls for the UK government to make its stance on masks clearer, following comments from the prime minister on Friday.
Mr Johnson – who was pictured wearing a mask for the first time during a visit to his constituency – said: “I do think we need to be stricter in insisting people wear face coverings in confined spaces where they are meeting people they don’t normally meet.
“We are looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings in shops, for instance, where there is a risk of transmission.”
Also on Friday, senior Whitehall sources said the government was considering making face coverings mandatory in shops.
They said while no decision has yet been made, it is an issue that is being kept under review.
The Department of Health and Social Care said on Sunday that 44,819 people have now died in UK hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus, a rise of 21 on the previous day’s figures.
Asked on the Andrew Marr Show about the issue of face masks, Mr Gove said: “I don’t think mandatory, no, but I would encourage people to wear face masks when they are inside, in an environment where they are likely to be mixing with others and where the ventilation may not be as good as it might.
“I think that it is basic good manners, courtesy and consideration, to wear a face mask if you are, for example, in a shop.”
The Cabinet Office minister added: “Now of course the government at all times does look at the emerging evidence about what the best way to control the disease is.
“If necessary, and if tough measures are required and as we have seen in Leicester, obviously a very different situation, then tough measures will be taken.
“But on the whole… it’s always best to trust people’s common sense.”
Guidance on face coverings has evolved over the last few months.
The key issue now is whether people will wear them without being forced to.
The Scottish government is worried they won’t – and so has told people they have to wear one in shops.
On Friday, Boris Johnson appeared for the first time in public in a covering and hinted that stricter rules were coming in England.
But now Michael Gove seems to be saying something different – that we should trust the common sense of shoppers.
My sources are keen to point out Mr Gove also said the government would take more action when necessary – so mandatory face coverings in England aren’t off the table. His comments are also in line with the policy as it stands just now.
But at a time when public messaging is crucial, some believe the government view on whether or not stronger action is needed isn’t clear.
Earlier, Mr Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday that wearing a face covering “definitely helps you to help others in an enclosed space”. He also urged people to return to work rather than stay at home.
“We want to see more people back at work, on the shop floor, in the office, wherever they can be,” he said.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said Labour would support mandatory face coverings for shops, as it “would inspire greater confidence and might encourage more people to go out and spend money”.
“I think people are increasingly wearing them but I think some greater clarity from government about that, I think, would be helpful,” she said.
“People want to do the right thing but they want to know what the right thing is. We already have it on public transport.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the UK government was hesitant about advising people to wear face coverings, arguing the scientific evidence that they reduce transmission was “weak”.
In early June, the World Health Organization changed its advice to say people should wear face coverings in public where social distancing is not possible. The WHO originally said there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks.
Rules compelling people to wear face masks on public transport in England were introduced on 15 June.
Earlier this week, the WHO said there was “emerging evidence” of airborne transmission.
Professor Wendy Barclay, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said coronavirus particles can remain suspended and infectious in the air for more than an hour.
A further 148 deaths were recorded in the UK, according to latest government figures on Saturday, bringing the total number of recorded deaths of people who have tested positive for coronavirus to 44,798.
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