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Face masks and the law

It is now mandatory to wear face coverings in shops in England to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. As the wearing of face masks becomes law in many parts of our lives, it is important to know the rules. We will cover everything you need to know about face coverings; why wear them, who is exempt and what happens if you don’t wear one. The information in this article is from reputable sources, namely NHS online and HM Government website. It is subject to change as the law updates.

What is a face covering?

In the context of the coronavirus outbreak, a face covering is something which safely covers the nose and mouth. You can buy reusable or single-use face coverings made from paper or fabric. You may also use a scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering but these must securely fit round the side of the face. This is to ensure no droplets can get out.

Face coverings are not PPE (personal protective equipment). PPE is in place in a number of settings to protect wearers against hazards and risks. This includes surgical masks or respirators in medical and industrial settings.

Face coverings are instead largely intended to protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection. They cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of virus that causes coronavirus infection.

Why should we wear face masks?

Coronavirus usually spreads by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking. These droplets can also be on surfaces, if you touch a surface and then your face without washing your hands first. This is why social distancing, regular hand hygiene, and covering coughs and sneezes is so important in controlling the spread of the virus.

The best available scientific evidence is that wearing a face covering correctly may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others.

By making it law to wear a face covering in some public places, it means we can reopen businesses and go back to some sort of normality.

Because face coverings are mainly intended to protect others, not the wearer, from covid-19 they are not a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing. It is important to follow all the other government advice on coronavirus (COVID-19) including staying safe outside your home.

When must you wear a face mask?

Different regulations exist for wearing face coverings in different parts of the UK:

Northern Ireland

In England, you must wear a face covering by law in the following settings:

  • public transport
  • indoor transport hubs (airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals)
  • shops and supermarkets (public places that wholly or mainly offer goods or services for retail sale or hire)
    indoor shopping centres
  • banks, building societies, and post offices (including credit unions, short-term loan providers, savings clubs and money service businesses)
  • You should wear a face covering immediately before entering any of these settings and must keep it on until you leave.

You are should also wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing may be difficult and where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.

Face coverings are also needed in NHS settings, including hospitals and primary or community care settings, such as GP surgeries and care homes. Individual settings may have their own policies and require you to take other measures.

Where this law does not apply

You must wear face coverings in any shops, including food shops and supermarkets, but not in hospitality settings, including restaurants with table service, bars, and pubs. They are also not required in entertainment venues (such as cinemas or casinos), visitor attractions (such as heritage sites or museums), exercise and sports venues (such as gyms).

Where a shop is within another premises which does not require a face covering (such as a museum or other visitor attraction) you must wear them in the shop only. Check for signage upon entry and exit to know when this is the case.

When you can remove a face covering

You can remove your face covering in order to eat and drink if reasonably necessary. This should be in an area that is specifically for the purposes of eating and drinking, such as a food court.

If a shop or supermarket has a café or seating area for you to eat and drink, then you can remove your face covering in this area only. You must put a face covering back on once you leave your seating area.

What happens if you don’t wear a mask in a place where it is law to do so?

Enforcement measures are in place if people do not comply with this law without a valid exemption.

Shops, supermarkets and other premises should take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law and could refuse entry to anyone who does not have a valid exemption.

Transport operators can deny access to their public transport services if a passenger is not wearing a face covering, or direct them to wear one or leave a service if they are not wearing a face covering.

If necessary, the police and Transport for London (TfL) officers have enforcement powers including issuing fines of £100 (halving to £50 if paid within 14 days).

Who is exempt for wearing a face covering and why?

There are some circumstances, for health, age or equality reasons, where people do not have to wear face coverings in certain settings. It is important to be mindful and respectful of such circumstances, noting that some people are less able to wear face coverings, and that the reasons for this may not be visible to others.

It is not compulsory for shop or supermarket staff or transport workers to wear face coverings, although employers may consider their use where appropriate and where other mitigations are not in place. Employers should continue to follow COVID-19 Secure guidelines to reduce the proximity and duration of contact between employees.

You do not need to wear a face covering if you have a legitimate reason not to. This includes:

  • young children under the age of 11 (Public Health England do not recommended face coverings for children under the age of 3 for health and safety reasons)
  • not being able to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • if putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress
  • if you are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others
  • to eat or drink if reasonably necessary
  • in order to take medication
  • if a police officer or other official requests you remove your face covering

There are also scenarios when you are permitted to remove a face covering when asked:

  • if asked to do so in a bank, building society, or post office for identification
  • when asked to do so by shop staff or relevant employees for identification, the purpose of assessing health recommendations, such as a pharmacist, or for age identification purposes including when buying age restricted products such as alcohol
  • speaking with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound. Some may ask you, either verbally or in writing, to remove a covering to help with communication

Exemption Cards

Some people may feel more comfortable showing something that says they do not have to wear a face covering. This could be in the form of an exemption card, badge or even a home-made sign.

This is a personal choice and is not necessary in law.

Those who have an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering should not be routinely asked to give any written evidence of this. Written evidence includes exemption cards.

You can access exemption card templates here.


Emma Hammett

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