We use cookies to give you the best experience. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our policy. Read more about how we use cookies and find out how you can change your browser's cookie settings.
Skip to content
Please donate

Face covering guidance

As we start to spend a little bit more time outside of our houses, the Government is advising that people should try to wear a face covering more often. As of 15 June it is mandatory for most people to wear a face covering while using public transport or when in a healthcare setting.

What is a suitable face covering?

A face covering is anything that covers your mouth and nose while allowing you to breathe comfortably. It can be as simple as a scarf or bandana that ties behind your head. The government advises against using a surgical mask or high grade personal protective equipment as simple face coverings are sufficient for people in their day-to-day activities, and they want to ensure there is enough stock available for professionals such as health and care workers who need them.

Where can I get a face covering from?

You do not need to buy a face covering if you don’t want to, as they can be made from items we already have in the home (with some scissors and elastic bands) such as:

  • a scarf
  • a bandana
  • a handkerchief
  • bedding
  • an old cloth t-shirt.

If you enjoy and have time to sew, you could also make face coverings with some cotton fabric, elastic, scissors, needle and thread.

You can find step by step guides to creating face coverings with these different materials here.

If you want to purchase a face covering, retailers including some supermarkets and many internet vendors are selling them. If you don’t have access to the internet, perhaps a trusted friend or neighbour could help you to purchase one.

If you choose to buy face coverings, you do not need to buy surgical masks. These should be reserved for those requiring personal protective equipment to do their jobs safely.

How many face coverings do I need?

It's important to think about how regularly you may need to use public transport, or visit a healthcare setting and how much of your day will be spent needing to wear a face covering.

For example, if you need to get public transport to work – you will need to ensure you have at least one face covering for each journey. If you were using public transport to visit a hospital, you would need at least three.

If you had a long day or journey ahead of you, it would be a good idea to have more than one face covering for each journey so that you can replace it when it begins to get damp.

When is it mandatory to wear a face covering?

In England, the only places where it is currently mandatory to wear a face covering is when you are using public transport and when in hospital for an outpatient’s appointment, or while visiting a loved one. You must wear it at all times. 

From 24 July, face coverings are mandatory for customers in shops and supermarkets. 

These rules do not apply to everyone and you do not need to wear a face covering if you or the person you care for: 

  • Find it difficult to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability 
  • Find putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress 
  • Are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate 
  • Are using public transport to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others  
  • Are using public transport to avoid injury, or to escape a risk of harm, and you do not have a face covering with you 
  • Need to eat or drink during the journey 
  • Need to take medication during the journey
  • Children under 3 don't need to wear a face covering on public transport and all those under 11 don't have to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets from 24 July.

The government has also advised everyone to wear a face covering when in an enclosed space, where social distancing may not be possible. This is not mandatory and is a personal choice. 

There is information available on the government website about safe travel guidance for passengers.

How do I alert someone to the reason why I am not wearing a face covering?

If you or the person you care for aren’t able to wear a face covering that is allowed and government guidance states this, as above. You may be asked by public transport or hospital staff about why you are not wearing one, and before you travel it might be a good idea to think about how you can communicate this. There is no requirement to provide medical evidence of your reason for not wearing a face covering.

It might be a good idea to write or print out a note that you can show to someone which tells them why you aren’t wearing a face covering. Some transport operators have print out journey assistance cards on their websites that people can use to show operators that they are unable to wear a face covering. All companies will accept any exemption card or note. 

The Hidden Disabilities programme which supports people living with non-visible disabilities to discreetly indicate that they may need additional support has produced a  ‘Face Covering Exempt’ card which is available to purchase online for 55p and could be used to show transport and hospital staff.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether you wish to travel with a card or something similar to indicate your reason for not wearing a face covering. There is no requirement for you to carry one.

Will I get in trouble if I am not wearing a face covering on public transport, when visiting a hospital or at the shops?

If you do not wear a face covering when using public transport, when visiting a hospital or, from 24 July, when in a shop or supermarket, staff may approach and ask why you are not wearing one. If you, or the person you care for are unable to wear a face covering because of the reasons indicated above then you will not get in trouble but may need to explain that this is the reason why.

On public transport, if you are not wearing a face covering, and cannot explain why, you may be refused entry onto public transport or asked to leave the public transport vehicle. If you refuse to do so, you can receive a fine from the Police or Transport for London Officers. The fixed penalty notice is £100 – or reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days of it being issues.

While you are in the shops, at transport stations or out for exercise you will not get in trouble if you are not wearing a face covering, as it is not mandatory to wear one.

From 24 July, you might not be allowed into shops or supermarkets in you're not wearing a face covering without reason.

I’ve forgotten my face covering, will I still be able to travel?

You're not allowed to travel on public transport without a face covering unless you have a legitimate reason for not wearing one, as we have outlined above. Some transport providers have emergency face coverings available to passengers, but this is not widespread.

How do I use a face covering safely?

There are some things you should do to wear the face covering safely.

Make sure you wash your hands before putting your mask on and taking it off. Make sure your mouth and nose are covered by your face coverings, but so you are still able to breath.

When wearing the covering, avoid touching your face. Don't take the covering on and off to talk to other people. When your face covering gets damp – particularly if you have been wearing it for a prolonged period – you should replace it for a new one.

To remove it, make sure you remove it from behind and do not touch the front, and clean your hands afterwards with soap and hot water. If you are out of the house, be sure to keep used face coverings in a plastic bag until they can be washed.

Wearing a face covering is not a substitute for staying at home as much as possible, washing your hands frequently, and keeping at least 2 metres from others.   

How often should I wash a face covering?

If you have a cloth face covering, you should wash it after every use – as you would a hanky. You can put it in with your laundry and use normal detergent. If you are not able to wash the covering straight away after wearing it, store it in a plastic bag until you have time. If you have a disposable face covering, you should throw it away after every use.

Why should I wear a face covering? Will it protect me from coronavirus?

There is emerging evidence which shows that wearing face coverings may help reduce the chances of an individual unknowingly infecting other people with coronavirus (COVID-19).  Wearing a face covering is therefore primarily intended to help protect the people around you. However, if we all wear one when in close proximity to others, we will collectively help slow the spread of the virus. But it is not a substitute for isolating when you have symptoms.

People with coronavirus symptoms, as well as all members of their household, must continue to follow the advice to self-isolate and stay at home as wearing a face covering will not stop you spreading the virus.

Does wearing a face covering mean I can get closer to other people?

Wearing a face covering does not replace advice on social distancing- you should still remain two metres away from people outside of your household when you go outside wherever possible.

You should also continue to wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds, with warm water and soap and dry them thoroughly. If you develop symptoms of coronavirus it is important that you still self-isolate at home.

I am really anxious about having to wear a mask when I get on public transport – what should I do?

Wearing a face covering is a difficult adjustment for many people during this period and we know that for some using public transport is already a situation that causes distress and anxiety.

It is important to talk to staff before using transport if you feel you are unable to wear a mask and are anxious about the reactions you may get. You do not have to wear one if it is difficult for you.

It might also be helpful to plan ahead for the journey you are making and have some plans in place to help you cope. We have some information about how to look after you mental health here.

Share this page

Last updated: Jul 14 2020

More on this topic...

Returning to volunteering

Many older people have had to put volunteering on hold because of the pandemic. As restrictions start to be lifted,...

Become part of our story

Sign up today

Back to top