Health Minister Robin Swann has welcomed the Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory in shops.
The decision takes effect on a phased basis from August 1, with the initial emphasis on education and encouragement.
This lead-in period will see legal enforcement of the measure beginning on August 20.
Mr Swann stated: “I am pleased that the Executive has supported my recommendation to move to a mandatory position. This is in line with the expert advice provided to Ministers by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser.
“We need to promote every available measure to stop the spread of Covid-19 in our community.
“The evidence in support of face coverings in shops and other enclosed spaces has become increasingly compelling.
“It should become second nature to us in the weeks and months ahead. I am confident people will want to do the right thing.
“This is particularly important in light of the fact that shielding is due to be paused from July 31. As people who have been shielding start resuming everyday activities, the wearing of face coverings in shops is a practical way to reassure them and help them keep safe.
“I am also very mindful of the need to protect retail staff.”
Mr Swann added: “I acknowledge that there are sincerely held views against face coverings and that some in the retail industry would prefer a voluntary approach.
“However, I do not consider this would achieve the necessary compliance.
“The experience to date from a mandatory approach on public transport in Northern Ireland has been positive.”
The lead-in period before enforcement takes effect will allow time for public education and engagement to promote the benefits of face coverings.
A public information campaign will be undertaken and guidance issued to the retail sector. This will detail the exemptions to the measure.
Employees and children under 13 will not be required to wear the face coverings. Nor will those who cannot wear them on health grounds.
The public information campaign will also reinforce current messaging on social distancing, and hand and respiratory hygiene.
“Everyone needs to be aware that wearing face coverings is first and foremost about protecting others.” the Minister added.
“It does not reduce the need to keep our distance and regularly wash our hands. It must not lead to a false sense of security.”