Senior officers said forces did not have enough resources to tackle people refusing to wear face coverings in shops in addition to their other duties.
“We won’t be doing that,” one police leader told The Guardian. “Do people really want the police telling you: ‘that’s not above your nose’?
“There are no extra officers. Everything else is still happening. Where is the greater risk: do you put two people in a supermarket not wearing masks before a woman suffering domestic violence?”
Another police source said: “The government wants to see more enforcement but that will not regulate behaviour. There is no way the 40,000 officers you can deploy can enforce regulations on 65 million people if they do not want to follow.”
They also suggested that the government should focus on making the guidance clearer and more consistent. A chief constable said: “I do not think we need additional powers. I need additional clarity about the exceptions, about how far people can travel.”
On Monday, Boris Johnson said that “we need to enforce the rules in supermarkets” to prevent people spreading coronavirus, while Matt Hancock insisted that stronger action was “necessary”.
Shopworkers’ union Usdaw said that it had been “inundated” with complaints from its members – who are classed as key workers – and called for supermarkets to revert to more stringent in-store measures.
Supermarket chain Morrisons said on Monday that customers who refuse to wear a mask without a medical exemption will be told to leave stores.
Sainsbury’s also confirmed it will post trained security guards at shop entrances to “challenge” any customers not wearing a mask or shopping in groups.
However retail bosses have suggested that further police support is needed to help enforce measures.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “While enforcement of face coverings is the responsibility of the police, retailers continue to do what they can to encourage their use throughout stores.
“Sadly, this has led to a sharp rise in incidents of violence and abuse against shop workers, which is why it is essential police support the work being done by retailers.”
Additional reporting by Press Association