In some of Barking’s busiest shops on Monday, dozens of customers browsed the aisles maskless and unchallenged. Even some security guards – who are being asked by the east London borough’s council to enforce the law requiring masks indoors – had their faces uncovered.
Still others had pulled their coverings down to expose their noses and mouths as they browsed at close quarters in bustling supermarkets. Signage encouraging mask-wearing was sparse in many of the largest stores, while security presence in shop doorways was often barely noticeable.
Some shoppers told the Guardian they thought mask-wearing was critical to protect the public and supported a council-led crackdown – though they said police should be the enforcers, not shop workers.
“Personally, I think it is very important to wear a mask in shops and other places, especially when interaction with the public so that we protect other people,” said Nimisha Unnadkat.
The 54-year-old, who lives in the nearby borough of Havering and travels in for work, added: “A lot of people are not doing it and there should be fines imposed. The government should be doing that, not the police, not the shopkeepers etc. They are not in a position to do so.
“You see people on public transport who do not seem to think it is necessary. If the central government is not with it, and the council want to do so to keep us safe, then I think they should be dealing with it because there needs to be some action.”
Liam Kay, 71, from Beckton, agreed mask-wearing was essential, singling out the public transport network and shops. He thought it was so important that, while he was exempt from wearing one, he did so anyway.
“When I see people walking about and they are not wearing a mask I think it is not fair,” he said. But he added: “I do see a lot of people but I do not say anything. It is very hard on people. They have had enough. They have been locked up in their houses for ages and I cannot blame them.”
He said he didn’t want the government to resort to stricter enforcement measures on face coverings, saying it would be difficult to build support. “But people should be wearing their masks because they are setting an example, not least for children. People should be more responsible.”
But Peter Petrovich, 38, from Barking, said he thought it was too late to be worrying about masks. While he did comply with the rules himself, he said the mask failed to provide adequate protection against the virus and, if its widespread use was to make a real difference, it needed to have been promoted back in March.
Feeling the material of his mask, as he spoke, he added: “The virus is so small, the mask will not protect us. I think it is to try to see if the people are listening to the government.”