Wearing a Face Covering or Face Mask

During the current Coronavirus pandemic, the Government released regulations that state face coverings and face masks are mandatory in public spaces. The scientific advisers have informed the Government that this an important measure in the fight against Coronavirus in order to reduce the risk of transmission. This blog explains the rules for wearing face masks and face coverings.

Do I have to wear a face covering?

In England, by law you must wear a face covering in certain places such as shops, public transport, NHS settings or other enclosed spaces, where it is difficult to maintain social distancing.

A quick guidance for England where you must wear a face mask or covering:

  • on public transport including the taxi, bus, train, ferry or plane
  • at transport hubs like airports, rail and tram stations and bus stations
  • in a hospital or healthcare setting
  • in shops, supermarkets and shopping centres
  • at post offices, banks, building societies
  • places providing personal care and beauty treatments like hair salons and barbers
  • enclosed spaces where it is difficult to maintain social distancing

Who does not have to wear a mask

Some people do not have to wear a face mask or covering, including:

  • children under the age of 11 (Public Health England does not recommend face coverings for children under the age of 3 for health and safety reasons)
  • people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress
  • if you are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate
  • to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others ‒ including if it would negatively impact on your ability to exercise or participate in a strenuous activity
  • police officers and other emergency workers, given that this may interfere with their ability to serve the public

How face masks stop coronavirus spreading

A face covering is a covering of any type which covers your nose and mouth. According to the government’s scientific advisers, these are mainly intended to protect others and not the wearer. As the transmission of COVID-19 is thought to occur mainly through respiratory droplets generated by coughing and sneezing, and through contact with contaminated surfaces and with the most common modes of transmission assumed to be droplet and contact, measures such as face masks and face coverings have been put in place to try and reduce the transmission of virus.

When used correctly and together with the other measures put in place by the government, the face covering can help prevent the transmission and spread of the virus.

The Government’s scientific advisers have put measures such as face masks in place because the evidence shows that it takes an average of 5 - 6 days for COVID 19 symptoms to show after a person has been infected. During this time, a person may not know that they have coronavirus, and therefore measures such as wearing a face mask or covering when a person is with other people or in public can stop it spreading when they talk, sneeze or cough.

How to wear a face covering

When wearing a face covering you should ensure the following:

  • cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably
  • ensure the face covering fits comfortably but securely against the side of the face
  • ensure it is secured to the head with ties or ear loops
  • choose a face covering that is made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton
  • the World Health Organization recommends 3 layers of fabric however 2 layers of fabric is also acceptable
  • unless disposable, the face covering should be able to be washed with other items of laundry according to fabric washing instructions and dried without causing the face covering to be damaged
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on
  • avoid wearing on your neck or forehead
  • avoid touching the part of the face covering in contact with your mouth and nose, as it could be contaminated with the virus
  • change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it
  • avoid taking it off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession (for example, when leaving and entering shops on a high street)

How to remove a face covering safely

When removing a face covering you should ensure the following:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing
  • only handle the straps, ties or clips
  • do not give it to someone else to use
  • if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a residual waste bin and do not recycle
  • if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer once removed

Who is exempt from wearing a face covering?

Everyone should wear a face covering if you can in the settings that the government have identified, however as per government guidance certain people do not need to wear a face covering if they have a good reason not to. This includes:

  • because of mental illness
  • if it will cause the person severe distress
  • to eat or drink
  • to take medication

Do I have to prove I am exempt from wearing a face covering?

You might not be able to wear a face covering if you have a valid exemption such as a mental illness or for any other reasons mentioned above. The government states that a person shouldn’t be asked to:

  • give evidence of this,
  • get a letter from a medical professional about your reason for not wearing a face covering, or
  • carry an exemption card

If you feel more comfortable showing something that says you don’t have to wear a face covering, this could be an exemption card, badge or even a home-made sign. You can download exemption cards from the goc.uk site. This is a personal choice and isn’t the law.

Enforcement measures for failing to comply with this law

Premises where face coverings are required should take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law.

The police can take measures if members of the public do not comply with this law without a valid exemption (as mentioned above) and 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 necessary, the police and Transport officers have enforcement powers, including issuing fines. Repeat offenders receiving fines on public transport or in an indoor setting will have their fines doubled at each offence.

What can you do if somewhere refuses you entry or service unless you wear a face covering?

You might be exempt from wearing a mask because of a disability.  If you are and you’re refused entry to somewhere or service, you might be unlawfully discriminated against.  There is a law called the Equality Act that protects disabled people from discrimination.  

If you’re exempt and you’re refused entry to somewhere or service, you can:

  • Explain to staff that you are exempt by law and tell them why
  • If you are exempt because of mental illness, you don’t have to say your diagnosis or the nature of your condition (it’s your choice).  You could just say your exempt because of mental illness or even say because of disability.
  • If you have a card or anything in writing to say you’re exempt, you can show staff. But you don’t have to do this by law.  If you have nothing in writing, you can tell staff that legally don’t have to prove that you’re exempt.
  • You might have a smart phone with you. You can show the member of staff the government information about when people are exempt, or you could print out the information and carry it with you.
  • If the member of staff still refuses you entry or service, you can ask to speak to the manager and go through the steps above.
  • If none of the above works you can complain. You can do this verbally, or in writing. 

What is the Equality Act and how does it protect you?

  • You might have a disability and be exempt from wearing a face covering, because of one of the reasons that are legally allowed.
  • If you’re refused entry or service unless you wear a face covering, the service could be in breach of the Equality Act.
  • Mental illness can qualify as a disability under the Act, as well as physical illnesses and conditions too.

Surgical face masks

Surgical face masks are designed to be worn in medical settings to limit the spread of infection.

Fluid-resistant surgical masks (FRSM) provide barrier protection against respiratory droplets reaching the mucosa of the mouth and nose. The protective effect of masks against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and other respiratory viral infections has been well established.

Surgical masks are not considered to be PPE when worn outside of healthcare activities and the general public does not have to wear surgical face masks, they are advised to wear fabric face masks and coverings that can be washed and reused. Medical or surgical face masks are thinner and can only be used once.

Face coverings at work

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has provided detailed guidance for specific workplace settings. Employers must make sure that the risk assessment for their business addresses the risks of COVID-19, using BEIS guidance to inform decisions and control measures including close proximity working.

It is important to note that coronavirus (COVID-19) needs to be managed through a hierarchy or system of control, including social distancing, high standards of hand hygiene, increased surface cleaning, fixed teams or partnering, and other measures such as using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.

Staff in indoor settings

Face coverings must be worn by retail, leisure and hospitality staff working in any indoor area that is open to the public and where they’re likely to come into contact with a member of the public.

If these businesses have taken steps in line with Health and Safety Executive guidance for COVID-19 secure workplaces to create a physical barrier between workers and members of the public, then staff behind the barrier will not be required to wear a face covering.

For other indoor settings, employers should assess the use of face coverings on a case-by-case basis depending on the workplace environment, other appropriate mitigations they have put in place, and whether exemptions or reasonable excuses apply.

Employees should continue to follow guidance from their employer based on a workplace health and safety assessment.