New coronavirus regulations came into force in June to make face coverings obligatory on public transport, and the law was extended to shops and other indoor public spaces the following month.
The vast majority, 759, were given to people refusing to wear masks in shops and other “relevant places”, and 199 on public transport.
Figures suggest that face covering fines are being given disproportionately given to black, Asian and minority ethnic men.
Conspiracy theorists and anti-lockdown groups have been urging people to refuse to wear face coverings, and characterising them as oppressive, ineffective or even dangerous.
But the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has maintained advice that “face coverings are likely to be effective at reducing the emission of respiratory droplets and aerosols containing virus into the environment”.
“There is no good evidence that face coverings significantly impact on normal breathing or oxygen levels,” added a report drawn up in September.
When face covering laws were brought into force, police leaders called for businesses to enforce them by refusing entry to customers who were not wearing masks and were not medically exempt.
But several large retailers said they would not be telling staff to enforce the law, and checks have not been widely reported.
A NPCC report admitted that “very few fixed penalty notices (FPNs) were issued in the first couple of months that the regulations were in place”, but increased at the start of October.
Figures showed that the number of fines issued in shops and other public places where face masks are legally required fell again in late November.
Coronavirus cases were rising dramatically during the period, and recorded infections have since reached record levels.
On Thursday, the UK has recorded another 1,162 deaths from coronavirus – the second-highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic.
The government also reported 52,618 new infections, down from 62,322 the day before – bringing the UK total up to 2,889,419.
Police guidance states that officers must first engage with people, explain the law and encourage them to follow it voluntarily before moving to enforcement.
But statistics show that the number of fines given out under face mask laws are far lower than those for breaches of other coronavirus regulations.
More than 32,000 were issued in England and Wales between 27 March and 21 December, with the largest proportion for violating the first national lockdown, around 6,500 for the second national lockdown, 3,000 under the first “local Covid-19 alert levels” law and 1,600 under the “all tiers” regulations, which have since changed.
The vast majority of fines over face coverings on public transport were issued to men, and two thirds to people aged between 18 and 29. Where ethnicity was recorded, three quarters of fines were issued to white people.
The vast majority of fines over face coverings in relevant places were also issued to men, but most were given to over-30s. Where ethnicity was recorded, two thirds were issued to white people.
The NPCC said that fines and arrests were the “last resort option” under all laws, and that the figures do not capture incidents where people are refused entry to shops and public transport for not wearing masks.
“Prior to police involvement, transport staff will use their discretion and may even prevent passengers in breach from travelling, with many individuals simply ending their journey or proceeding to wear a face covering at that point,” a spokesperson added.
“These are matters which will be resolved by staff in the first instance within retail settings, and businesses, local authorities and licensing authorities will have responsibility for ensuring premises are compliant and Covid-safe.”
Martin Hewitt, chair of the NPCC, thanked the “vast majority” of the public for sticking to the rules and following guidance.
“It is vital that everyone continues to take personal responsibility by staying home unless they have a valid reason not to be there,” he added.
“I understand that this is not an easy request to be making but as we return to national restrictions, everyone must play their part in protecting the NHS and saving lives.
“Enforcement doesn’t and shouldn’t always equal police involvement or the issuance of a fixed penalty notice.
“Individuals, businesses and a range of agencies all have a responsibility to ensure the virus is suppressed, particularly now as we again see increased pressure on the health service. We will continue to engage with people proportionately, fairly and using common sense.”