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Face covering guidance

In some places it is mandatory for most people to wear a face covering, including on public transport, in shops, and in healthcare settings.

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, or if you usually wear a religious covering such as a niqab this is also suitable. 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, visit a healthcare setting or go to places like shops or supermarkets, 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?

It's mandatory to wear a face covering when you go to the following places:

  • NHS settings, such as hospitals and GP surgeries
  • Transport hubs, such as train stations and airports, and when using any form of public transport
  • Shops, supermarkets, and shopping centres
  • Banks, building societies and post offices
  • Cafes and restaurants which do not have table service and require customers to go to a till to purchase food and drink. Once food has been purchased, customers are able to take off their face covering to eat the food if there is a sitting area available for this.
  • Visitor attractions and entertainment venues, such as cinemas, museums, galleries, and bingo halls
  • Places of worship, crematoria and chapels at burial grounds
  • Venues providing beauty treatments, such as hairdressers and nail salons
  • Public areas of hotels and hostels
  • Libraries
  • When working in shops, bars, restaurants, or as a taxi driver.

You should wear a face covering before entering any of these settings and must keep it on until you leave unless there is a reasonable excuse for removing it.

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 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
  • when receiving a service which cannot be done while wearing a mask, such as having a facial.

This list of exemptions is not exhaustive, and you are exempt from wearing a covering if you have justifiable reasons for not wearing one because of your health or disability. 

It's important to be respectful to people who aren't wearing face coverings as their reason for not wearing one may not always be obvious. 

Children under 3 should not wear face coverings. It isn't mandatory for children under 11 to wear face coverings on public transport, or, from 24 July, in shops and supermarkets.

You may also remove a face covering if:

  • asked to do so by a police officer
  • asked to do so in a bank, building society, or post office for identification purposes
  • asked by shop staff for age identification
  • your health is being assessed by a professional such as a pharmacist and they need to see your face
  • speaking with people who rely on lip reading, facial expression, and clear sound.  

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's information available on the Government website about when and how to wear face coverings. There's also information available on the Government website about safe travel guidance for passengers.

Some workplaces may ask that staff wear face coverings. It's up to individual workplaces to decide how best to keep their staff safe.  

When you have a face covering on it's worth being extra careful when moving about as it can make it harder to see. Be sure to slow down to reduce your risk of falling.

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

Even though it's allowed, if you or the person you care for aren’t able to wear a face covering, you may be asked by public transport or retail staff why you aren't wearing one so it's a good idea to think about how you'll communicate this.

There is no requirement to provide medical evidence of your reason for not wearing a face covering but you might feel more comfortable showing people something which explains why you don't need to wear one.

The Government have produced exemption from face covering badges and cards which you can download to your phone or print off. You can get one here.

If you prefer you could also 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. They also have a range of products, including lanyards and badges, which you can use if you find socially distancing difficult and need to let others know to give you space. 

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 in places where it is mandatory, such as when using public transport or in stations, when visiting a hospital or, 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 begins at £200. 

You may also not be allowed into places such as shops, supermarkets or banks if you do not wear a face covering without having a justifiable reason.

I’ve forgotten my face covering, will I still be able to travel or go into a shop?

You're not allowed to travel on public transport or enter places such as shops 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

Wearing a face covering can be difficult to adjust to and you may be feeling anxious about doing so. There are things you can try to make wearing a mask more bearable: 

  • Reduce the time you need to wear a mask by planning in advance. For example, write a list when you are going to the shops so that you don’t have to spend additional time browsing. When using public transport, plan your route so that you spend less time at stations or on the tube.  
  • Keep your body cool by wearing loose clothing. 
  • Try different fabrics and mask styles to see what you prefer.
  • Personalise your mask so that you are more comfortable with it. You might want to add a comforting scent to your mask, such as perfume or aftershave, or you could choose a nice pattern.  
  • Try distraction techniques to help you focus your attention away from your mask. For example, you might want to listen to some music or a podcast when on the train or you could try to focus your attention on your surroundings.  

Don’t forget that there are exemptions to the rules around masks and if wearing one causes you severe distress, then you do not have to.  

For more information about how to cope with wearing a mask, take a look at Mind’s website. 

We spoke to Professor Trisha Greenhalgh GP to get to the bottom of some of the questions people have about face coverings – separating the fact from the fiction.

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Last updated: Apr 20 2021

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