The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed the entire way the world functions. This pandemic has proven deadly and difficult to acclimate to. One reason why COVID-19 is unique may potentially be because the guidance’s and recommendations for how to combat it seem to change so rapidly. When the outbreak first began, the public was urged to wash their hands regularly and maintain six feet (two meters) of the distance between themselves and those around them. There was also guidance stating that masks and face coverings may not be effective. COVID-19 was not (and is still not) thought to be a predominantly airborne virus. Since then, however, the guidance around face coverings has taken a 180-degree turn.
As of late April 2020, according to the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing a face mask is a simple and highly effective way to help decrease coronavirus transmission.
Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that non-medical face coverings should be worn in public places where and if maintaining six feet of distance (a term dubbed ‘social distancing’) is not possible. Different countries have taken varied approaches to enforce mask-wearing. However, at this point, most are in agreement that wearing a cloth that covers both the mouth and nose can help minimise the spread.
What is a face covering, and why is it useful?
In the context of COVID-19, a face covering is something that entirely covers the nose and mouth areas of the face. Both reusable or single-use face coverings exist. Medical grade personal protective equipment (PPE) (i.e. surgical masks, N-95 masks) differ from more day to day face coverings (bandanas, scarves, cotton or polyester cloth masks). Particularly with the latter type of mask, the intention behind wearing a face covering is to protect others around you, as opposed to protecting the wearer. That said, if enough people wear masks effectively, the overall risk for everyone in the general public is significantly reduced.
The coronavirus is thought to spread when droplets from an infected person are sprayed into the air. Infection occurs when these droplets land on a surface that is touched or directly inhaled by another person. Droplet spread can happen through coughing, sneezing, or even talking. This is why covering your face and nose to minimise the distance the droplets travel is critical.
The effectivity of a face-covering is significantly reduced if you:
- Wear it too loosely around your mouth and nose
- Pull it away from your face when you speak
- Touch the front of your mask and proceed to touch other things without properly sanitising
- Share your mask with anyone else
When and where to wear a face-covering in the UK
The UK has been light on the enforcement of mask-wearing. Unlike many other countries, the UK has refrained from requiring face coverings when in open public areas. That said, as of 24 July, wearing a face-covering is necessary when visiting a museum, gallery, cinema, place of worship, or many shops. In other words, in any enclosed public space in England, including trains, airports and buses, face coverings are compulsory. The penalty for failing to wear an appropriate face covering can be up to £100 (or £50 if the payment is completed within 14 days). Repeat offenders will double at each offence, with a maximum fine of £3200. The rules are enforced not by individual companies, but by law enforcement.
It’s important to note that different rules exist in different parts of the UK. For example, in Scotland, face-coverings in enclosed public spaces have been compulsory since 10 July. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, face-coverings have been mandatory since 10 August. Both have fines associated with a £60 penalty. For specific details outlining the requirements of each region, see here for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The remainder of this article will focus predominantly on England’s mandates.
Although it has been mandated that face coverings must be worn in enclosed public spaces, different retailers have differed in their enforcement approach. There are some discrepancies between even similar companies – for example, while Sainsbury’s has announced they would not require face coverings for their customers, Tesco has announced they would.
Who is exempt from wearing a mask?
Face coverings should comfortably cover your mouth and nose while still allowing you to breathe fully. That said, there are certain groups of people who may be exempt from the broader rules. These groups include:
- Children under the age of 11 years
- People who cannot independently put on, wear, or remove a mask because of physical or mental impairment (or psychological disability)
- Employees in indoor settings or transport workers
- Police officers or emergency workers when at work, if they believe it will interfere with their ability to serve the public
- Anyone speaking to or assisting another who relies on lip-reading or other facial expressions to communicate
- To avoid harm or injury to yourself or others
There are also certain situations where you may be asked to remove your face covering. Potential scenarios include:
- At a bank, airport security, or a post office to provide secure identification
- At a shop for age-restricted products
- At a hair salon or other aesthetic location to receive treatments or services
- At a doctor’s office to take medications or undergo medical procedures
- At a marriage or funeral ceremony
- At a gym or physical fitness arena where a mask would hinder your ability to complete the task at hand.
- At a restaurant, if outside, or once properly distanced from other tables if inside
It is possible to create a medical exception card to legitimise your inability to wear a mask. Anyone who feels that a medical exemption card would be beneficial can find a template here. However, by law, it is not necessary to have anything formally written to provide proof of an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted global systems since its uncontrollable spread in March. The best available scientific evidence is that when used correctly, wearing a mask or other face-covering may significantly reduce the range of coronavirus droplets. This can protect people in situations where maintaining a six-foot (two-meter) distance is not possible, or in enclosed spaces where surfaces and other items may be contaminated. Because face coverings are primarily intended to protect others, they should not be considered as a replacement for other preventative measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing.
Although the UK has maintained relatively relaxed restrictions on mask-wearing in light of this global pandemic, wearing one whenever possible is undoubtedly the most responsible way to proceed through these strange times. If you have a medical exemption, stay home as much as possible or remain in situations where social distancing is easily feasible, to protect yourself and those around you.
If you feel you have been wrongly convicted under the Coronavirus Act 2020, contact a human rights solicitor for further advice.
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