What is the guidance on face coverings and how has it changed?

15th Jul 2020

Face coverings became mandatory in all shops in England on 24 July and those who refuse risk a £100 fine or being refused service.

In England, it is also mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport and in hospitals

On 31 July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that face coverings would become mandatory in “indoor settings where you are likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet”, such as museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship, from 8 August in England.

Different rules exist for each nation in the UK: in Scotland face coverings are already mandatory in shops and on public transport; they are mandatory on transport but not currently in shops in Wales and in Northern Ireland face coverings must be worn on public transport and will be mandatory in public areas indoors like shops from 10 August. We will look at the differences across the four nations in more detail below, although most of this article will be about the changes in English rules.

The government says evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you from Covid-19, but if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with. It is important to continue to social distance while wearing a face covering. 

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.

We’ve been asked by readers to explain the new guidance. We’ve taken a look at what the government advice says and how it has changed for England. 

What is a face covering and who has to wear one?

The government defines a face covering as “something which safely covers the nose and mouth”. The public has been encouraged to make face coverings at home using scarves or other textile items (the government has published guidance on how to do this) or you can use a scarf, bandana or religious garment, or buy a disposable or reusable face covering.  

A face covering is not the same as the surgical masks worn by healthcare professionals and other workers as part of personal protective equipment (PPE). The government says these should be reserved for those who need them, like health and care workers and those in industrial settings.

People who work in “close contact services” like hairdressers, spas, beauty salons, tattoo and photoshoot studios have been told to wear a clear visor that covers the face, extending below the chin and wrapping around the side of the face. It should provide a barrier between the wearer and the client from respiratory droplets, caused by sneezing, coughing or speaking. The guidance says there is “no requirement” for the customer to wear any additional protection like a face covering if the practitioner is wearing a visor. (This is contrary to comments made by environment secretary George Eustice, who told Sky’s Kay Burley on 14 July that “you’ve always required a mask” as a customer at a hairdresser.) 

Where do you have to wear a face covering? 

In England, the law says you must wear a face covering in the following places: 

  •  public transport
  •  indoor transport hubs like airports or train stations
  • shops, supermarkets and indoor shopping centres
  • banks, building societies and post offices
  • from 8 August, in museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship 

You are expected to wear the face covering before entering any of these places, and keep it on until you leave. 

The guidance strongly recommends wearing a face covering in any enclosed public spaces where social distancing is difficult and you come into contact with people you do not normally meet. Face coverings are also required in NHS settings, and recommended in care homes.

Face coverings are required when buying takeaway food and drink, but are not required in restaurants, bars and pubs. Designated indoor seating areas for customers to eat and drink should only be open for table service. 

Who doesn’t have to wear a face covering?

Guidance says it is not compulsory for shop or supermarket staff to wear face coverings, or for those who work in banks, building societies or post offices. Transport workers are not required to wear face coverings by law. Employers may consider recommending use of face coverings if appropriate. 

You also do not have to wear a face covering if you have a “legitimate reason” not to. This includes: 

  • children under the age of 11
  • 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 travelling with or helping someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • To avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others
  • To eat or drink, but only if you need to 
  • To take medication 
  • If you are requested to remove your face covering by a police officer or other official
  • If you are requested to remove your face covering by shop staff for the purpose of age identification 

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.

Face coverings are not recommended in schools or most types of workplace.

What did the old advice say?

On 11 May 2020, the government said the public “is advised to consider wearing face coverings in enclosed public spaces such as shops, trains and buses” but did not make the wearing of face coverings mandatory.

The statement said that, after “careful consideration of the latest scientific evidence”, the government has “confirmed face coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances”, such as if people have Covid-19 but are not showing symptoms or in places where it is hard to maintain social distancing. 

It was announced on 4 June 2020 that face coverings would become mandatory on public transport in England from 15 June 2020. On 5 June 2020, face coverings become mandatory for everyone working in or visiting a hospital in England.

When the government reviewed the two metre social distancing guidance on 26 June 2020, it said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) recommended “encouraging the use of protective screens and face coverings” to reduce the risk of transmission if two metre social distancing cannot be maintained.

On 12 July 2020, Michael Gove, the Duchy of Lancaster, said he did not think face masks should not be mandatory in shops. On 13 July 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “very important” to wear face coverings in shops, and people “should be” wearing them. 

The change in policy was announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on 14 July 2020, who said the government wanted to “give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops.”

What about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, face coverings become mandatory on public transport on 22 June 2020 and in shops and supermarkets on 10 July 2020

Government guidance in Scotland says it is “strongly recommended” that staff in shops wear face coverings, even when two metre social distancing is applied, but says there is an exemption if there is two metre social distancing or Perspex screens in place. Although in England, the guidance says children under 11 do not have to wear a face covering, in Scotland the guidance says children under the age of five aren’t required to.

In Wales, use of face coverings on public transport became mandatory 27 July. 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, and says: “Unfortunately, many of the home made masks being worn offer little protection to the wearer or those around them.”

In Northern Ireland face coverings became mandatory on public transport on 10 July 2020. This does not apply to children under the age of 13. From 10 August, it will also be 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 (with some exceptions, such as in pubs, restaurants or gyms).

Update 24 July 2020

This article was updated to include new government guidance on face coverings.

Update 31 July 2020

Updated to include changes to guidance in England and Wales.

Update 7 August 2020

This story was updated to reflect changes to the rules in Northern Ireland.