Coronavirus / When do I have to wear a face mask?

When do I have to wear a face mask?

When do I have to wear a face mask under the new regulations? Are the new rules discriminatory? Can I be denied entry to a venue if I’m not wearing a mask? Our coronavirus advice and information hub has you covered.

This information was correct as of 27 January 2022 but is subject to possible changes.

This page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.

Do I need to wear a face mask?

On 27 January 2022 The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 expired. This was part of the move from Plan B to Plan A. This means you are no longer required by law to wear a face covering anywhere.

However, businesses are still allowed to have their own policies requiring people to wear face masks in their premises. This can include denying entry to those who do not wear one. These policies have to make allowances for those who are unable to wear a face mask due to a disability or other protected characteristic (see discrimination section below). Policies may also make allowances for exceptions in other cases, but this is at the discretion of the business. Several supermarkets have such policies in place, as does public transport in London.

There is also guidance for health settings (GP surgeries, hospitals, pharmacies, etc.) to require face coverings for visitors and patients, unless they have a medical exemption or are unable to wear one. Again, they may deny entry to those who do not wear a face covering when required to. In this case there is clearer guidance on what counts as valid reason for being unable to wear a face covering.

Government guidance suggests that people should continue to wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces. This suggestion is not enforceable unless there is also a requirement to wear a mask under the premises’ policy, as described above.

What are the rules about face masks in England?

The rules about when you need to wear a face mask in England were found in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021. These came in to force on 30 November 2021.

These expired on 27 January 2022.

It is currently not a criminal offence to fail to wear a face covering anywhere in England. Different premises may have their own policies, as described above.

What is a face mask?

In the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic, a face covering or ‘mask’ is a covering used to protect you from the spread of the virus. Therefore, a face mask is anything which covers your nose and mouth. There are many types of face masks, including cloth face coverings, respirators and disposable surgical masks.

Where do I have to wear a face mask?

As of 27 January 2022 you are not legally required to wear a face mask anywhere in England. However, individual premises may have their own policies.

Public transport in London, and several supermarkets, have introduced their own policies requiring people to wear face masks. They can therefore deny entry to those who do not wear a mask and can ask you to leave if you have entered without one. However, they must make an exception for those who are unable to wear a mask due to a protected characteristic, such as having a disability. Otherwise, these policies may be discriminatory.

Health settings, such as hospitals and GPs, have been given guidance by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) requiring visitors and patients to wear face coverings unless they have a medical exemption or are otherwise unable to wear one. Each individual premises is required to enforce this guidance. Therefore, you will be required to wear a face covering in health settings unless you are exempt.

Are the face mask rules discriminatory?

In England and Wales, the main protection against discrimination is found in the Equality Act 2010. Any laws on wearing face masks and the policies of any private or public businesses and services must not breach this Act.

As of 27 January 2022, there is no general law requiring you to wear face masks in certain places. However, as noted above, businesses are allowed to have their own policies requiring people to wear face masks in their premises. These policies may disadvantage some people more than others; for example, by denying them entry to certain premises because they can’t wear a mask or restricting their breathing if they’re required to. This could, in some cases, be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. However, for this to be the case, the disadvantage must be connected to a protected characteristic.

There are nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. Note that ‘disability’ and ‘religion or belief’ have specific legal definitions here.

This means that some cases of disadvantage will be discriminatory, but not all. If a policy is discriminatory against you, then you can bring a civil claim against the business or service provider in question. If you think that you may have been discriminated against you should contact a solicitor to discuss the details of your case. You would need to bring your claim within 6 months less one day of the act of discrimination you’re complaining about

Public authorities are also required to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). This brings most of the rights from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. The NHS, for example, are a public authority, and therefore must comply with the HRA.

Article 14 of the ECHR states that no one should be denied access to any of the other rights in the ECHR on the basis of certain characteristics. The list of characteristics in Article 14 is more open-ended than the list in the Equality Act. This means that other characteristics might be relevant for a discrimination claim against the NHS or other public authorities. However, it must be shown that another ECHR right is under threat due to that characteristic.

If someone was denied access to emergency life-saving treatment because they were unable to wear a mask, this might breach their right to life (Article 2) in a discriminatory way (Article 14). However, if the treatment in question was elective, this right would not be relevant and therefore a discrimination claim couldn’t be brought on that basis.

The interplay of different rights can be complex. If you believe that you were discriminated against by an NHS body you may wish to talk to a solicitor who specialises in healthcare law.

You can find information on our I Need a Lawyer page here. The Equality Advisory and Support Service may also be able to help.

Can someone make me wear a face mask?

It is no longer a criminal offence to refuse to wear a mask. Therefore, police officers cannot require you to wear one on that basis.

If a business has their own policies requiring you to wear a mask, then they can deny you entry if you are not wearing one. They can forcibly remove you from the premises, but they can’t fine you. They must also take care to comply with the Equality Act 2010 as explained above.

What is a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face mask?

Businesses can have their own policies which include their own exceptions. As long as these exceptions make allowances for the requirements of the Equality Act, they have discretion over what to include.

However, it is worth noting that many might choose to follow the previous rules. The face mask regulations provided a list of reasonable excuses for not wearing a mask. This list was non-exhaustive, which means that other excuses may also be considered reasonable if they are not in the list but are similar to the excuses which were.

The regulations previously gave the following reasonable excuses for not wearing a mask:

  • you can’t put on, wear or remove a mask because of a physical or mental impairment or disability
  • you can’t put on, wear or remove a mask without severe distress
  • you need to communicate to someone who relies on lip reading
  • you need to remove your mask to avoid harm or injury to yourself or others
  • you need to remove your mask to receive medical treatment
  • you are entering the premises or public transport to avoid injury or harm and do not have a mask with you
  • you need to remove your mask to eat or drink
  • you need to remove your mask to take medication
  • an employee at the premises or public transport asks you to remove your mask to check your identity
  • in a pharmacy, an employee asks you to remove your mask to provide healthcare
  • a police officer, PCSO, TfL officer, local authority officer or public transport employee asks you to remove your mask
  • it’s reasonably necessary for you to sing, in a rehearsal or a performance.

Children aged 10 and younger are also not required to wear face masks.

How do I prove that I am exempt from wearing a face mask?

There are no specific requirements regarding how to prove your exemption or reasonable excuse.

For those who want to prove that they have a physical or medical impairment or disability, or that a mask would cause them severe distress, they can choose to carry an exemption card. There is no legal requirement to carry these. However, there are templates available in the government guidance for those who wish to use them.

Transport for London

To prove that you are exempt from wearing a face mask on TfL services, you can order a free badge to let their staff, enforcement officers and other passengers know that you are exempt. Again, this is not a legal requirement.

You can also download and print your own exemption card and carry it with you. You can show the card if you are asked why you are not wearing a face covering.

What are my rights on this?

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

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