Coronavirus / What are the rules on face coverings?

What are the rules on face coverings?

This information was correct as of 13 July 2020, but is subject to possible changes.

Unless otherwise stated, this page sets out the law and guidance which is applicable in England only.

When do I have to wear a face covering?

From 15 June 2020, it is a criminal offence to use public transport without wearing a face covering, unless one of the listed exceptions apply, or you have a reasonable excuse.

A person is considered to be using public transport when they are boarding a public transport vehicle or when they are on board, whether or not for the purposes of travel.

Despite some contradictory statements by the Government, you are not currently required by law to wear a face covering in any other place, although this may change at short notice. See “Are there other times I have to wear a face covering?” below for more info.

What are the exceptions to the rules on face coverings?

You do not have to wear a face covering on public transport if any of the following apply:

  • you are a child under the age of 11
  • you are an employee of the operator of the public transport service acting in the course of your employment (e.g. a ticket inspector employed by a rail company checking tickets on a train)
  • you are providing services under arrangements made with the operator of the public transport service
  • you are a constable or police community support officer (PCSO) acting in the course of your duty
  • you are an emergency responder acting in that capacity
  • you are a relevant official acting in the course of your employment or duties (this includes certain transport inspectors, pilots and border force officers)
  • you are within your allocated cabin, birth or other accommodation, provided you are alone, or you are only with other members of your household or support bubble (also known as a “linked household”)
  • you remain in your vehicle while using the public transport, as long as the vehicle is not itself used for the provision of public transport services (e.g., you remain in your car while it is on a ferry).
What is a 'reasonable excuse' for not wearing a face covering?

It will not be a crime if you have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for not wearing a face covering on public transport. Some examples of a ‘reasonable excuse’ include:

  • you can’t put on, wear or remove the face covering because you have a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (as defined by the Equality Act 2010)
  • you can’t put on, wear or remove the face covering without severe distress
  • you are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate with you
  • you have removed your face covering to avoid harm or injury, or a risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others
  • you are travelling to avoid injury, or escape a risk of harm, and you don’t have a face covering with you
  • it is reasonably necessary for you to eat or drink, and you remove your face covering to do so
  • you have to remove your face covering to take medication
  • a relevant person requests that you remove your face covering.

This isn’t a complete list. This means that there might be other lawful reasons for you to travel by public transport without a face covering.

This will depend on your individual circumstances, and ultimately the discretion of a police officer and/or court.

These new rules apply in England. You should check the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as these may be different. You will have to wear a face covering if you enter England by public transport from another UK nation.

The Government has provided guidance about these rules, as well as a safe travel infographic.

See this National Rail guidance if you are travelling by train.

See this government guidance if you are travelling by aircraft.

See this guidance by The Major of London and London Assembly if you are travelling by public transport in London.

See this Transport for London (TfL) guidance if you are travelling with TfL services, e.g. the London Underground.

What is public transport?

This law defines public transport as any service which is used to carry passengers from place to place and is available to the general public. It explicitly includes aircrafts, cable cars, trains and vessels, and the government guidance clarifies that this also includes buses, coaches, trams, ferries and hovercrafts.

These rules apply regardless of whether you paid for the journey or not. It also includes journeys by public transport which involve breaks in the journey. And they will apply even if not all the places connected by the service are in England.

The rules also apply if you are entering England by public transport from another part of the UK or from another country.

If you are travelling by an aircraft which took off from England or is scheduled to land in England, you will have to follow these rules while you are in English airspace, which is the airspace above England or above the English territorial sea (the sea next to England).

For example, if you are on a plane that takes off in England and lands in France, you must wear a face mask during take-off and during the time you are travelling over English territory. However, if the plane takes off in Belgium and lands in the US, crossing the English territory on its way, you don’t have to wear a face covering.

Bear in mind that there may be laws in countries outside the UK that require face coverings, so you should check with your airline before you travel.

The rules are similar if you are travelling on a boat providing public transport: you will have to follow these rules while in the English territorial sea, unless the boat both departed from and is due to dock somewhere that is not England.

It is not against the law if you do not wear a face mask on the following types of transport:

  • school transport services
  • taxi and private hire vehicle services
  • any service provided by means of a cruise ship.

This means that you won’t commit a criminal offence if you don’t wear face coverings on these types of transport.

However, the government guidance advises that you should still wear a face covering when using taxis or private hire vehicles. While this is optional, a taxi driver or vehicle operator may be entitled to refuse to accept you without one on.

What is a face covering?

A face covering is a covering of any type which covers your nose and mouth. This means that, as long as your nose and mouth are covered, you can use any material, including a scarf, balaclava, or face mask.

Transport for London guidance suggests that “face coverings can be simple cloth that covers the nose and mouth. Customers can also make their own face coverings.”

The Government has published guidance about how to wear and make a cloth face covering.

A briefing given by the NPCC and College of Policing to the police clarifies that police are not expected to assess the quality or suitability of the face covering, and that the important requirement is that your nose and mouth are covered.

Government guidance also makes a distinction between face coverings and surgical masks used by healthcare workers as part of personal protective equipment (PPE). It states that surgical masks should be reserved for people who need to use them to stay safe in their workplace.

What is a disability under the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as:

  1. You have a physical or mental impairment, and
  2. The impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

If you see someone who isn’t wearing a mask on public transport, it is worth remembering that not all disabilities are visible, and that they might have a lawful reason for not wearing a mask.

Are there other times I have to wear a face covering?

Government guidance also advises you to wear a face covering when attending a hospital as a visitor or outpatient.

It also advises you to wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and where you come into contact with people you don’t usually meet. This includes stations, interchanges, ports and airports.

However, this isn’t the law and you can’t be fined or prosecuted for not doing this. The Government has made a number of statements suggesting that it may change the law in this area and we recommend checking this page regularly for updates.

Public services, such as shops or businesses, may have their own policies about requiring face coverings before entering.

What about my children?

The law says that children under the age of 11 do not have to wear face coverings.

Government guidance says that it is optional for children between the ages of 4 and 11 to wear face coverings, but that children under the age of 3 should not wear face coverings.

If you have responsibility for a child who isn’t wearing a face covering on public transport, you might be directed by a relevant person to make sure, as far as reasonably practicable, that the child follows the law.

You will be responsible for a child if you have custody or charge of the child for the time being, or if you have parental responsibility for them (as defined by section 3 of the Children Act 1989).

Who can enforce these rules?

These regulations can be enforced by a “relevant person”, which includes:

  • a police constable
  • a police community support officer (PCSO)
  •  a TfL officer in relation to public transport provided by TfL or a TfL contractor
  • the public transport operator or any employee or agent of the operator who is authorised for these purposes
  • a person designated by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this regulation.

How will these rules be enforced?

A relevant person can deny you from boarding public transport if they consider that you are not wearing a face covering, and you don’t have a reasonable excuse or none of the exceptions apply.

They may also direct you to wear a face covering or direct you to disembark from the relevant vehicle.

If you are told to do either of these things by a police constable, but you don’t do it, the constable may remove you from the vehicle. However, a PCSO or public transport worker is not authorised remove you from the vehicle.

The constable can use reasonable force if necessary when doing so. ‘Reasonable force’ means using only as much force as they need in the circumstances. It must be the minimum – no more.

If the police use excessive force, you may be able to take a case against them for compensation. If you believe this has happened, you should speak to a solicitor specialising in actions against the police. Get help to find one here.

These enforcement powers can only be used if they consider it necessary and proportionate to ensure compliance.

The NPCC and College of Police briefing says the police should encourage you to comply voluntarily in the first instance, for example, by helping you to get hold of a face covering from the transport operator or directing you to a vending machine or shop which sells them. It also says they should tell you about the regulations and remind you about the public health risks of coronavirus.

Do I have to remove my face covering if asked to by a police officer?

The NPCC and College of Policing briefing makes clear that these regulations do not give the police the power to direct you to remove your face covering or to forcibly remove your face covering.

However, depending on the circumstances the police may have other powers to require you to remove a face covering. You should ask the police “under what power” they are asking you to do this.

It is not a crime if you remove your face covering on public transport if directed to do so by a police officer, PCSO or TfL operator. This is because it is an example of a ‘reasonable excuse’.

Is it a criminal offence if I break these rules?

Yes, these regulations create new criminal offences. It’s now against the law to:

  • use public transport without wearing a face covering, unless you have a reasonable excuse or fall into one of the listed exceptions
  • obstruct any person enforcing the regulations, unless you have a reasonable excuse for doing so
  • defy a direction to wear a face covering or to disembark a vehicle, unless you have a reasonable excuse for doing so.

These offences are punishable by a fine if you are convicted in the Magistrates’ Court.

What are the penalties?

The penalties for breaching these rules are similar to the penalties for breaching the ‘lockdown’ regulations.

If you’re 18 or over, and an ‘authorised person’ (a police constable, PCSO, TfL officer or person designated by the Secretary of State) reasonably believes that you have committed one of the above offences, they may give you a ‘fixed penalty notice’ (FPN). This is a type of fine.

The FPN will be £100 payable within 28 days, or £50 if paid within 14 days. If you pay the FPN during the 28-day period, you won’t be prosecuted for a criminal offence. If you don’t pay within this period, you might have to go to court.

There is no formal right of appeal in the regulations, but if you disagree that you have broken the law, look at the FPN to see if it mentions how you can challenge it.

If it doesn’t mention how to appeal it, you can challenge the FPN notice by going to court. But if you are convicted, you may have to pay a higher level of fine and will have a criminal record. If you are found not guilty, you won’t.

The FPN must include the following details:

  • the particulars of the circumstances of the alleged offence
  • the time period within which you have to pay before a prosecution can be brought against you
  • the amount that you must pay
  • the name and address of the designated officer to whom you must pay
  • the accepted methods of payment.

If you believe that you have a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering, or that you are exempt from the requirement under one of the listed exceptions, you should explain this to the police officer or public transport operator.

As with the other ‘lockdown’ powers, police have been given guidance which says that they should first take the approach of ‘engaging’ with you, ‘explaining’ the new rules and ‘encouraging’ you to voluntarily comply. ‘Enforcement’ should be the last resort, and should only be used if you refuse to comply. This is known as the “four E’s” approach.

Remember, the police can only enforce the law, and they can’t enforce the social distancing guidance. For example, they can’t give you a FPN if you don’t maintain a distance of 2 metres from other people.

If you are given a FPN and wish to challenge it, you should seek legal advice.  Get help finding a solicitor.

If you are unhappy with the way that the police have treated you, you can make a complaint. See our page on this topic for more information.

If you need further advice about your rights, contact us.

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Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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