What is the guidance on face masks?

29 September 2020

Masks or face coverings became mandatory in all shops in England on 24 July. Since then, there have been several changes to the rules about where they must be worn. We’ve been asked by readers to explain the new guidance. 

Different rules exist for each nation in the UK. We will look at the differences across the four nations in more detail below, although most of this article will be about England.

The government says the “best available scientific evidence” is that wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping the wearer to protect others. Official advice says it is still important to continue to social distance and wash your hands regularly. 

Wearing a face covering does not change the fact that if you have symptoms of Covid-19 (including a cough, high temperature and/or loss or change in your normal sense of smell or taste), you and your household must isolate at home. You should also arrange to have a test to see if you have coronavirus.

What is a face covering?

The government defines a face covering as “something which safely covers the nose and mouth”. Face coverings should ideally include at least two layers of fabric and fit securely against the side of the face.  

You can make face coverings at home using scarves or other textile items, or you can use a scarf, bandana or religious garment, or buy a disposable or reusable face covering. 

Government guidance says you should not touch the front of your face covering or the part that has been in contact with your mouth and nose. Once removed, face coverings should be stored in a plastic bag until you have the opportunity to wash them, or dispose of them if they are single-use. It says you should clean any surfaces the face covering has touched, and if eating out you should not place the face covering on the table.

The government also recommends washing your hands thoroughly before putting on or taking off a face covering, and avoiding taking it off and putting it back on repeatedly in quick succession (like when entering and leaving shops on a high street). You should not give it to someone else to use.

Where do you have to wear a face covering? 

Everyone in the UK is advised to wear a face covering in a number of indoor settings. In general, you are also advised to wear a face covering in any enclosed public space where social distancing is difficult and you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.

In many cases, this is a legal requirement, although the law varies between the four nations. 

In England, the law and guidance says you must wear a face covering in many places, including: 

  • Public transport
  • Indoor transport hubs like airports or train stations
  • Shops, and enclosed shopping centres
  • Banks, building societies and Post Offices
  • Places of worship, crematoria and burial ground chapels
  • Museums, galleries, zoos and visitor farms, aquariums, theme parks and other tourist or cultural sites 
  • Concert halls, exhibition halls, bingo halls and conference centres
  • Community centres and member’s clubs
  • Public areas in hotels and hostels
  • Cinemas, casinos and theatres
  • Public libraries and reading rooms
  • Restaurants, bars and pubs, unless you are seated and consuming food or drink
  • Hairdressers, nail salons, massage centres and tattoo and piercing parlours
  • Private hire vehicles and taxis

You are required to wear the face covering as you enter any of these places, and keep it on until you leave. 

Face coverings must be worn by retail, leisure and hospitality staff who are working in areas that are open to the public, and where they are likely to come into contact with the public, such as shops, bars, restaurants, banks and hotels. Face coverings are also required for staff, visitors and outpatients in NHS settings, and recommended when visiting  care homes.

Who doesn’t have to wear a face covering?

Transport workers are not required to wear face coverings by law

There are other reasons why people do not have to wear face coverings. In England, this includes: 

  • Children under the age of 11 (Public Health England does not recommend face coverings for children under the age of three for health and safety reasons)
  • People who are unable to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of 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 speaking to or helping 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 a face covering would negatively impact your ability to exercise or participate in a strenuous activity 
  • If you are a police officer or other emergency worker

You can also remove a face covering in certain situations, including:

  • When seated to eat or drink in a hospitality premise like a pub, cafe or restaurant (but you must put it back on once you’ve finished eating or drinking) 
  • To take medication 
  • If you are requested to remove your face covering by retail staff for the purpose of age identification, or to assess health recommendations (for example by a pharmacist) 
  • To receive treatment or services, such as getting a facial 
  • To deliver a sermon or prayer in a place or worship, or if you are getting married
  • If you are undertaking exercise or an activity that would be negatively impacted by wearing a face covering
  • If you are working as an elite sportsperson, professional dancer or referee 

The government has also provided templates to create exemption cards and badges for those who have a valid reason not to wear a face covering. This is optional.

Face coverings do not have to be worn in education settings or most types of workplace, but can be recommended by education leaders or employers if necessary—for example, schools may require face coverings to be worn in communal areas. Pupils aged 11 to 18 attending faith schools can remove their face coverings when having lessons in a place of worship as part of the core curriculum.

What if you don’t wear a face covering?

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

In England, the police and Transport for London officers can issue fines of £200 (reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days) for a first offence. 

Repeat offenders who do not wear face coverings on public transport or in an indoor setting will have their fines doubled each time. A second fine is £400 and a third is £800, repeating up to a maximum of £6,400.

What about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, face coverings become mandatory on public transport on 22 June 2020. It is now mandatory to wear them in multiple locations such as shops, museums and cinemas, similar to the guidance in England. In Scotland, you must also wear a mask in gyms and fitness studios and other indoor leisure centres. They are also recommended in public toilets.

The Scottish government says you are expected to wear a face covering in indoor places where physical distancing is difficult and there is a risk of close contact with people who are not members of your household. This includes when visiting or attending an appointment at any healthcare setting including doctors’ surgeries, dentists and hospitals.

Penalties for not following the rules are smaller in Scotland, with police having the power to issue fines of £60 (halving to £30 if paid within 28 days) for anyone not complying.

Although in England the guidance says children under 11 do not have to wear a face covering, in Scotland the guidance says only children under the age of five aren’t required to.

In Wales, the use of face coverings on public transport became mandatory 27 July, but it did not become a legal requirement in shops and other indoor public places until 14 September. Face coverings must now be worn in all indoor public places, for both customers and employees, including public spaces in private buildings such as a reception area. The only exemptions are when customers are consuming food or drink.

Employers are expected to mandate the use of face coverings in other indoor areas where social distancing cannot be maintained “unless there are strong reasons not to”, and schools can make their own assessment of whether face coverings are necessary. Gyms are expected to take mitigating action to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading if it is not appropriate to wear face coverings for certain activities.

Guidance in Wales also warns that a face covering should be made up of at least three layers of material to be effective, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

These rules apply to anyone aged 11 or over, unless you have a reasonable excuse not to wear a face covering. In Wales, a reasonable excuse also includes if wearing a mask will trigger flashbacks to a traumatic experience. 

Managers of premises are required to provide information about the legal requirement to wear a face covering. Customers who do not have a reasonable excuse not to wear a face covering can be asked to leave a premises if they refuse to comply, and police and environmental health officers can issue a penalty of £60 for a first offence, doubling with each subsequent offence up to £1,920. Repeat offenders could be prosecuted in court, where there is no limit to the fine.

In Northern Ireland face coverings became mandatory on public transport on 10 July 2020. From 10 August, it became mandatory to wear a face covering in a shop or shopping centre, or any indoor public space where it is not possible to maintain social distancing.

However, you do not have to wear a face covering in a business that can maintain social distancing by using ticketing or appointments, such as when visiting a cinema, hairdresser or solicitor. Nor are you required to wear a face covering in a bank or a gym or when eating or drinking.

This does not apply to children under the age of 13 or members of staff. A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Executive confirmed to Full Fact that breaches of the rules on face coverings can result in a fine of £60, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days, and increasing with further offences.

Update 29 September 2020

This story was updated to include changes to guidance in the UK.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.