Wearing face coverings: Where the law stands
In the UK, as part of stricter coronavirus restrictions, face coverings are mandatory on public transport, in hospitals, shops, supermarkets and when not seated at a table to eat or drink in hospitality venues. In England and Scotland, face coverings are also compulsory in many indoor spaces, including:
- Banks, building societies and post offices
- Places of worship
- Museums, galleries and entertainment venues
- Libraries and public reading rooms
Research by University College London (UCL), the University of Edinburgh and the University of Haifa found that the widespread use of face coverings (alongside extensive testing, tracing and isolation) could dramatically cut the number of future deaths from coronavirus. It's important to understand that in certain situations, each nation is adopting slightly different rules. For example, in England, secondary schools will have the "discretion" to require face coverings in communal areas where social distancing is not possible. Yet, in Northern Ireland, face coverings must be worn in the corridors of post-primary schools.
As the pandemic continues to evolve, and with the recent introduction of the three-tier lockdown restrictions, it's not just important to check the law in your country, but it's also critical to examine the latest rules in your local area.
What does the government define as a ‘face-covering'?
In the context of COVID-19, a face covering or mask is "something which safely covers the nose and mouth". You do not necessarily need to buy reusable or single-use face-coverings; you can also use a "scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering" — but only if it fits securely around the side of the face.
What protection will a face-covering give you?
A face covering can play an essential role in slowing the spread of the virus, yet the level of protection offered depends entirely on the mask in question. A cloth mask is designed to trap droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes, and they are widely used in public settings. N95 masks are a type of disposable respirator, blocking out 95% of tiny particles. That said, some N95 masks have one-way valves that make them easier to breathe through. Since the valve releases unfiltered air when the wearer breathes out, this type of mask doesn't always prevent the wearer from spreading the virus. Surgical masks are intended to be disposable, protecting the wearer's nose and mouth from droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain germs.
The official UK government guidance makes clear that wearing a face-covering "does not protect you" from coronavirus, whilst SAGE (the principal advisory group currently counselling the government) states that scientific evidence of coverings preventing the spread of infection from one person to another is "marginal but positive".
Are you wearing it wrong?
The regulations state that a face covering must cover a person's nose and mouth. Therefore, if you wear the mask without covering your nose, you will be breaching rules. It should also fit securely against the side of your face and be secured with ties or loops to the ears. The material should be "comfortable and breathable" and ideally made of at least two layers of fabric, whilst the World Health Organization recommends three (depending on the fabric used). If it's not a disposable face covering, it should be washed regularly.
Wearing a face covering on public transport – Exemptions to the rule
You do not have to wear a face-covering on public transport in England if any of the following apply:
- You are under the age of 11.
- You cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering due to a physical or mental illness, impairment, or disability.
- Wearing one will cause you severe distress.
- You are speaking to (or assisting) someone who relies on lipreading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate.
- You are avoiding harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury to yourself or others. For example, if it would negatively impact on your ability to exercise or participate in strenuous activity.
- You are a police officer or emergency worker, and wearing one will interfere with your ability to serve the public.
There are various other scenarios too, such as if you're asked to do so in a bank (for identification) or by a pharmacist (for assessing health recommendations), yet the latest information for England can be found here.
If you do not comply with this law without a valid exemption, police can take measures, whilst transport operators can deny you access to their public transport services. If necessary, the police and Transport for London (TFL) officers have enforcement powers including issuing fines of £200 (reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days) for the first offence. For repeat offenders, there is no discount permitted. The second fine will amount to £400, and a third fine will be £800, up to a maximum value of £6,400.
Responsibility on businesses
In situations where employees, visitors or customers do not comply with the law at premises where face coverings are mandatory, the premises should "take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law." That said, the responsibility for forcibly removing non-compliant visitors (who do not have a valid exemption) lies with the police or public transport officials. According to figures from the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), 89 fines were handed out across England and Wales between 15 June and 21 September for non-compliance, whilst the NPCC has since stated that it expects retailers "to manage entry to their stores and compliance with the law while customers are inside" while police officers will only be involved "as a last resort".
At Noble Solicitors, we're focused on the safety of our people and our clients, so we ask that you bring your own face coverings when attending meetings at our offices. Whether you've been issued with a fine or require expert legal advice for a complicated case, we can help you bring a fair end to your dispute. You can tell us about your needs by calling 07000 81 82 83 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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