Northern Ireland news

'Anecdotal' evidence shows 90% of people are wearing masks in shops, PSNI commander says

Customers wearing face masks leave Poundland in Belfast
David Young, Press Association

A police claim that nine out of 10 people are complying with face covering rules is based on "anecdotal" evidence from retailers, a commander has said.

PSNI assistant chief constable Alan Todd said he had no reason to believe retail representatives were inflating compliance estimates in an effort to protect their industry from further restrictions.

Mr Todd's comment came after Stormont's chief scientific adviser questioned the statistical basis for the PSNI contention that there is a 90% compliance rate when it comes to the law requiring the wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport.

Professor Ian Young said, while that might be the rate in large retailers, he expressed doubt that nine out 10 people were wearing coverings in smaller stores.

READ MORE: Coronavirus-linked deaths pass 900 in Northern Ireland

Mr Todd also defended the PSNI approach to enforcing the rules amid criticism of the failure to administer one fine, despite undertaking around 3,700 visits to retailer premises since the regulation was introduced.

He said the police's approach to enforcing the health guidance was informed by advice from official health experts.

The senior officer said mask wearing in shops had not been identified as a main priority in recent weeks, as police were instead urged to focus on breaches of Covid-19 regulations around house parties.

Mr Todd said the 90% compliance figure was based on feedback from retailer representatives.

In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, he was asked whether the evidence was therefore anecdotal.

"I fully accept that and I wouldn't pretend otherwise," he replied, acknowledging there would be variations in compliance at different places and at different times.

The officer rejected the suggestion the figure may be unreliable due to a desire by retailers to overstate adherence levels.

"I don't get the sense that they're talking that up and I don't get the sense that they are being anything other than straight and honest in conversations," he said.

Justice minister Naomi Long is currently undertaking what has been described as a rapid review of penalties and enforcement of the coronavirus laws.

That comes amid concern around the Executive that a lack of action against rule breakers is emboldening some people to flout the regulations.

Masks must be worn in shops in the north

Mr Todd said the PSNI approach to enforcing the health regulations was slightly different to how it normally functioned, in that the organisation's actions were being guided by public health advisers.

"Frankly, if the senior health advisers turned around tomorrow and said 'we've got a real problem with face coverings in the retail space' that will become tomorrow's priority for policing," he said.

"But it's not for me to decide that unilaterally, it is not for me to decide that outside that guidance by the people who have access to all the information and all the numbers.

"And that's slightly different to the normal way that policing is conducted."

He added: "I'm not averse to issuing fines for people not wearing face coverings.

"And I'm sure as this develops and infection rates rise and priorities change that we'll see some of that coming through.

"But I think that needs to be driven legitimately and proportionately from the medical evidence and the prioritisation requests coming under the health guidance, rather than me wanting, frankly, to respond to media criticism of policing's position."

Mr Todd highlighted there was a school of thought that police enforcement could be "counterproductive" in terms of increasing compliance.

"I'll take guidance from the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) and the chief scientific adviser (Prof Young) and others about how much enforcement is helpful or unhelpful in getting it to the level that they want it to get to," he said.

Earlier, Prof Young questioned the basis of the 90% compliance claim.

"I don't believe that we have seen robust statistical data to support that," he said.

"My personal observation... is that certainly in large supermarkets the use of face coverings is in that sort of area (90%), but I suspect that it is not as high as that in smaller stores."

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