Constable Alan Todd has clarified that this figure was an estimate. This claim is unsubstantiated.

On 10 August 2020, the use of face coverings in indoor settings such as shops and shopping centres in Northern Ireland became mandatory.

On 1 October 2020, the PSNI’s Chief Constable Simon Byrne and Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd, at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, suggested that there was 90% compliance with the regulations on wearing face coverings in retail settings.

In the Chief Constable’s Byrne’s words (8:12 in the video), “from what we see from both the retail sector and from Translink, there is about 90% compliance actually with the restrictions, and the desire for people to behave in that social distanced space in which face masks are part.”

At the same meeting, Constable Todd referred to “the 90% estimate in usage” of face coverings (27:44) and referred to “the 90% piece” (29:07).

When Stephen Nolan asked for the source of this figure on Radio Ulster on 2 October, the PSNI Press Office answered that the figure came from “consistent feedback from retail and transport reps” (9:34). 

On Talkback later that day (9:50), Constable Todd clarified that the 90% figure is based on “feedback I get on a regular basis from retail representative bodies.” He also said that compliance varies across different places and times.

When William Crawley specifically asked if Constable Todd had conducted a study on face coverings in retail settings in Northern Ireland, Constable Todd replied (11:44), “I don’t, and haven’t, and I don’t actually intend to conduct any studies around the 90% number. That’s the indicative piece.”

More information came on 5 October. On the Nolan Show, Constable Todd added (22:23) that the 90% estimate was also informed by feedback from operational police officers and PSNI command and control.

We asked the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland if they had conducted any studies about face covering compliance in retail settings or if they were aware of any data that might inform the 90% figure. We have not been made aware of any such data. In fact, Roger Pollen from the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland told the Nolan Show on 5th October that he did not give the 90% figure to the PSNI, and that he suspects the compliance rate is not as high (24:50).

Northern Ireland’s Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young said that it was his “personal observation” that while 90% of people may wear face coverings in supermarkets, he suspects that compliance is not as high in smaller shops.

The closest we can come to evaluating rates of face covering compliance is individuals self-reporting in surveys. 76% of UK respondents in a YouGov survey on 29 September 2020 said they were “wearing a face mask when in public places.” This is a dramatic increase from 14 April 2020 when just 10% of UK respondents said that they were wearing masks. But while it is a useful benchmark, self-reporting may not give us a full picture of compliance rates given that respondents’ answers may not always reflect their practices.

When Chief Constable Byrne referred to 90% compliance at the Policing Board meeting, he also made reference to Translink. As FackCheckNI confirmed, Translink data from 30-31 July 2020 showed that 82% of the public were wearing face coverings on public transport. Translink counted people wearing masks on a given number of journeys, rather than reports from travellers or drivers.

The figure of 90% compliance with the wearing of face coverings in retail settings in Northern Ireland cannot be substantiated. It is an estimate from the PSNI based on a variety of informal/anecdotal feedback.

FactCheckNI is Northern Ireland’s first and only dedicated independent fact-checking service and a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can learn more about about FactCheckNI, our personnel, what our article verdicts mean, and how to submit a claim.