Supermarkets were facing a mask backlash from shoppers on Monday amid complaints that staff, rather than customers, were failing to follow face-covering advice.
Many retailers have said they will continue to ask customers to wear face masks when they shop, after legal requirements on social distancing were lifted.
Guidance from the Government also stipulates that the public are “expected” to wear face coverings in enclosed indoor spaces to stem the soaring infection rates across Britain.
As shops opened their doors on what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”, however, it soon became clear that the announcements had created confusion around the use of face coverings.
Customers from dozens of Sainsbury’s branches across the country flooded social media with complaints about the number of staff who were now choosing not to wear masks.
It came after Simon Roberts, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, recently said the supermarket chain would continue to encourage mask-wearing, because “many of our colleagues would feel more comfortable”.
A shopper who visited Sainsbury’s in Newcastle on Monday said it was her first day back at work after 10 days of self-isolation, but in the store she found “no staff” wearing masks and only around one-third of customers following advice on face coverings.
“I felt so uncomfortable that I left without purchasing anything,” she said.
There were also reports from some branches that the majority of shoppers were wearing their masks, but few staff were doing so.
A customer in Maidenhead said: “People are still wearing masks except for most of the staff at Sainsbury’s, which felt really odd as most of the customers were.”
Another shopper, who directed her complaint at the Sainsbury’s Twitter account, said: “Unfortunately none of your staff in my local store this morning felt able to wear a mask. However, all the customers did. They were probably doing it to protect key workers.”
In the Portswood suburb of Southampton, a Sainsbury’s shopper even reported spotting others “start to remove” their facemasks “after seeing many staff not wearing them”.
“Bizarre, and a worrying trend,” he said.
Many complained the absence of face coverings left them feeling unsafe, with some reporting the perspex screens that previously separated checkouts appeared to have been removed.
Sainsbury’s said in response that it planned to retain all screens at checkouts, as well as hand sanitiser stations, and keep its strict cleaning regimes.
Other shoppers said they were heartened to find so many staff and customers wearing masks and continuing to respect social distancing when they visited their local branches, with several claiming to be “pleasantly surprised” by the level of adherence.
A spokesman for Sainsbury’s said: “Safety continues to be our top priority. We are encouraging our customers and colleagues to wear a face covering and the vast majority of people are choosing to do so.”
Similar experiences were shared by customers at rival supermarkets, including one man who said two staff members without masks at Tesco had enjoyed “a nice chat while rummaging through my stuff at the self scan”.
Many others, by contrast, reported being pleased with how many staff continued to have masks at Tesco stores, where customers and employees are encouraged to wear masks, but it is not said to be compulsory.
The confusion was not just limited to the high street on Monday, as transport networks including the London Underground tried to continue making commuters wear masks.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said face coverings are still “compulsory” for journeys operated by Transport for London (TfL) to “give Londoners confidence to travel”.
However, in an apparent effort to stop officers from becoming involved in commuter disputes about masks, the British Transport Police issued a statement which said: “We no longer have involvement in policing the wearing of face coverings.”
On Twitter, Philip Clark, a music journalist, described seeing “lots of arguments” over masks between passengers and staff, as well as other passengers, on the London Underground.
“It’s chaos,” he added.