Face coverings: Everything you need to know

New UK guidelines have recently been introduced, making it compulsory to wear face coverings in public places. This is to protect the health and safety of the general public by reducing the transmission of Covid-19. With rumours of a second wave due to hit the UK in the next coming months, there is no clear timeline for when this pandemic is expected to end; it could go on right up until Christmas, or beyond. Therefore it is important to understand the guidelines so that you know exactly what is expected of you when it comes to face coverings. This article will provide a summary of the guidelines; when and where you should be using a face covering and what could happen if you don’t comply with the rules. It is important to note here that the advice focuses only on the use of face coverings; it is still very important to follow other government advice to protect yourself, and others, from the spread of Covid-19.

What is a face covering?

A face covering, also referred to as a face mask, is a piece of material which is used to cover the nose and mouth. Up until recently, it was mainly only health professionals who you would see wearing face masks, such as doctors, nurses and dentists, but now, due to Covid-19, face coverings are becoming a common sight amongst the general public.

Face coverings can be single-use or reusable; whichever you chose is purely down to personal preference and there are pros and cons of both. However, if you do not want to wear a traditional face mask, then you can use other items, such as a scarf or bandana, if this is preferred.

Why should I use a face covering?

Face coverings are required to prevent the transmission of Covid 19, as scientific evidence suggests that face coverings, used in combination with social distancing and good hygiene, may help to reduce the spread. The virus is transferred through respiratory droplets and contact; the mask helps to reduce the spread of droplets, both in the air, and also on surfaces which other people might touch, after you cough, sneeze or speak near them.

A face covering does not stop you from getting Covid-19; instead the primary aim is to protect other people from potentially catching the virus from you. In order to defend yourself from Covid-19, face coverings should be used alongside social distancing and good hygiene practices, not as a standalone protective measure.

When should I wear a face covering?

There are different rules in different parts of the UK about when you should wear a face covering, therefore it is important to check regional websites to make sure you are being compliant.

In England, the guidelines state that face coverings must be worn indoors, where social distancing cannot easily take place. Face coverings should be worn before you enter the premise and should not be removed until you leave.

These list below provides some guidance about where face coverings care considered to be compulsory:

  • doctors surgery, hospitals and care homes
  • public transport or in transport hubs
  • shops, supermarkets and shopping centres
  • post offices, banks and building societies
  • hair salons, barbers, nail salons, massage centres and tattoo and piercing parlours
  • vets
  • visitor attractions and entertainment venues
  • libraries
  • places of worship
  • funeral homes and crematoriums
  • exhibition halls and conference centres
  • public areas in hotels and hostels

Note that the above list is not exhaustive and you should be prepared to wear your face covering during any indoor setting where you are not able to practice social distancing.

What are the consequences if I don’t wear a face covering?

If you do not comply with the rules surrounding face coverings, and do not wear one at a time or place when you should be, then you must be prepared to face the consequences.

The police are required to ensure that that everyone is complying with the guidelines and have been informed that they should prevent individuals from entering premises if they are not wearing a face covering, or remove them from the establishment if they don’t comply with the rules once they are inside. An initial warning will be issued in the first instance, however, they are permitted to use force if an individual refuses to comply. If an individual fails to follow guidance after the warning, police are also able to issue fines of up to £100.

Transport for London (TfL) officers also have similar powers; they are able to issue fines of up to £50 for those who refuse to wear masks, whereas repeat offenders will face fines of up to £3,2000.

Additionally, business owners have been encouraged to prevent individuals entering their premises if they are not wearing a mask, and are able to ask individuals to leave if they are not complying.

Is there anywhere that a face mask is not compulsory?

There are, however, times when you don’t need to wear a face covering and you will not be penalised for this.

Such scenarios include when you are being asked for identification; either in a bank, building society or post office, or when providing identification for age restricted products. Additionally, if you are receiving treatment or services which is made difficult by the use of a face covering, you are able to remove it, for example, when you visit a salon for a haircut.

The good news is that you are also able to remove your face covering when dining out, in a restaurant or establishment which offers table service. You must, however, replace your face covering when you leave the dedicated seating area where food can be served.

If you are unsure about when or where to wear your mask, you can always check the government guidelines. It is always best to err on the side of caution to avoid any unpleasant situations or potential fines.

Is there anyone who is exempt from wearing a face covering?

In addition to the scenarios listed above, there are also a number of people who are exempt from wearing masks. For example, children under the age of 11 do not need to wear masks, as they are considered to be a potential choking hazard. If individuals are unable to put on, wear, or remove a face covering as a result of a physical or mental illness, impairment or disability, or if doing so will cause them severe distress, they are also exempt from wearing one. Additionally, if people are speaking or providing assistance to individuals who rely on lip reading then they do not need to wear a face covering, nor is this compulsory if the person they are with requires clear sound or facial expressions in order to communicate. Finally, if the face covering will negatively impact on an individual’s ability to carry out or perform an activity, a face covering is not required, such as taking part in strenuous activity.

It is very important to note that it is not always obvious who is exempt and who is not, therefore please be mindful when you see someone who is not wearing a face covering, as their reasons may be genuine.

If you think you might be exempt from wearing a face covering but you are not sure, you can check the government guidelines for further clarity.

How should I correctly wear a face covering?

Unlike surgical face masks, and those used for PPE, your own face coverings do not need to be specially fitted. Your face covering must fit snugly around your face, covering your nose and mouth, while allowing you to breathe comfortably. Your face mask can be fitted with a tie around your ears, but if you find this uncomfortable then you can attach it to an external piece of material, such as a headband.

You must remember to replace your face covering after every single use; single-use masks must be disposed of in the rubbish and reusable masks can be washed at a high temperature. You must also change your mask as soon as it becomes damp. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly, using soap and water, or hand sanitiser if this is not available, as soon as you dispose of your mask.

Do I have to wear a face covering at work?

Police officers and emergency workers do not need to wear a face covering at work as this could interfere with their ability to carry out their duties. Additionally, employees of indoor settings and transport workers may not have to wear face coverings, although it is recommended to do so if they are in a situation where they are not able to manage social distancing effectively.

Employees should seek guidance from their employers to find out about the rules surrounding face coverings and exactly what measures have been put in place to keep them safe at work. Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment, therefore face coverings are not compulsory, however, risk assessments may show that they are recommended as an extra safety precaution, and then it is the responsibility of the individual whether or not they choose to wear one.

Hopefully the spread of Covid-19 will be contained by the end of the year and this won’t go on past Christmas, or even in to the New Year. However, despite many health professionals and researchers working tirelessly to find a vaccine, there is the possibility that face coverings will be the new norm for a while. Guidelines are continuously being updated so please do always remember to check government advice to ensure you are following the most recent ones.