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Created: August 2020

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Coronavirus: Exemptions from wearing 'face coverings'

Coronavirus: Exemptions from wearing 'face coverings'

Last month, the government in England introduced a regulation that makes it a criminal offence to not wear a face-covering [read: mask] in a shop or similar premises.

The regulation concerned is The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020.

In simple terms, this means you have to wear a mask in places such as shops, banks, post offices, chemists, buses, trains, bus/train stations, shopping centres/markets. If you don't, you could be given a fixed penalty notice of £100.

You do not have to wear a mask in a pub, cafe, library, cinema, vets', doctors' surgery, dentist, optician, nightclub, hotel, barber, amongst others.

Fixed penalty notices can be issued by a constable, a police community support officer, or a Transport for London officer.

However, many people are exempt from this, particularly the disabled and ill. Regulation 4 provides the "Reasonable Excuses" for not wearing a mask. Regulation 4, Paragraph 1 states:

...the circumstances in which a person ("P") has a reasonable excuse include those where-

(a) P cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering-

(i) because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010(a)), or

(ii) without severe distress

This basically covers anyone who would find wearing a mask difficult because of their illness or disability. It is not just limited to disabled people. It can be people with any illness or impairment. Therefore, short term anxiety or depression could very well count, if that condition makes it difficult to wear a mask. Injured or worn out limbs could exempt you, for example, if you would have to put down your walking stick in order to fit a mask, exposing you to the risk of falling over. People with Asperger's Syndrome or Autism would be exempt as wearing a mask would probably be overwhelming sensory wise, and would make it difficult to communicate with people as you cannon see their face properly. Presumably something like Eczema might count if a mask would hurt your skin. Such a condition may not be a disability, but it would be covered by the blanket term 'illness or impairment'. People with dementia would be exempt under the disability rule as they may find it extremely confusing and completely forget the purpose of wearing a mask. I don't know whether those with bad eyesight would count, as things like short-sightedness are not usually considered illnesses, but if your glasses steam up and you can't see, then you are exposing yourself to health and safety risks.

People who are communicating with the deaf or hard of hearing also have their own dedicated exemption to facilitate lip reading.

It is also important to remember that children under the age of 11 are exempt, regardless of medical conditions. This is worth noting as I have seen quite a few young children out wearing masks.

As you can see from the explanations above, the exemptions are fairly broad. Anyone who finds masks uncomfortable, struggles to communicate with them, gets anxious etc AND has some type of medical problem, is exempt, and needn't wear one.

I will not be wearing a mask as I have Asperger's Syndrome and anxiety which I believe are good enough reasons to warrant exemptions.

I am also of the opinion that wearing masks is stupid. Fortunately, the exemptions are broad enough that even people who are technically not exempt, can probably get away with not wearing one.

Some organisations have been producing "Exemption cards". There is no provision for exemption cards or similar in the regulations, so no such cards are 'official'. I have produced my own card, which, instead of telling people that the holder is exempt, quotes the relevant part of the regulations.

This card states the name of the regulations, quotes the relevant part of it, and gives a one sentence explanation. Click of the image for the full 600dpi version which can be printed at credit card size. Please feel free to use this if you wish.

What can I do if I am exempt from wearing a mask, but a shop won't let me in, or won't serve me?

Shop keepers etc have no power to enforce this law as such. It is a police matter. If they suspect you of breaking the law they should report you to the police. However, some police forces have said that they do not have time to deal with such complaints.

However, we are still something resembling a free country, and most businesses don't have any obligation to let you in, or to serve you at all. If they do not want you there, they can insist you leave, in which case you can either leave and take your money elsewhere, or you can explain that you are exempt from the mask regulations, or politely inform them that by refusing to serve you, they could be committing disability discrimination. If you're exempt because of a disability (as opposed to just an illness/impairment), then refusing to serve you due to reasons relating to your disability would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. In such cases I would recommend complaining to the owner/manager and informing them of your rights. In extreme cases you may with to seek legal advice.

If you are not exempt but simply do not agree with masks for political reasons/similar, then you don't have any rights to make them serve you. I suggest you tell them where they can shove their business and take your money elsewhere.

People are making rude comments/gestures or are shouting at me. What can I do?

Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic and the government's scaremongering has done a very good job of turning people against each other.

In the first instance, I would respect the person's right to free speech, and blatantly ignore them, and try not to dwell on it later. Of course, not ruminating is easier said than done.

If it happens more than once from the same person, it could constitute harassment. You may wish to contact the police.

If the abuse is from other shoppers, rather than staff, inform the manager. Some larger shops have said they will not tolerate abusive behavior between customers.

If the abuse is from staff, then you really must inform the manager, or vote with your feet and take your money elsewhere.

This situation will not be helped by the fact that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, says that members of the public should "shame" others into complying.

Anecdotal evidence from the world wide web suggests that this hasn't been too much of a problem, but disabled people, who already have a lot to contend with, will probably have a hard time even with unpleasant comments

Are their alternatives to masks?

When most people think of masks, they think of dust masks, surgical masks, etc, all of which have strict specifications to meet. This regulation uses the term 'face covering', which basically means anything which covers your mouth and nose. There is no specification other than that.

A plastic 'face shield' (similar in style to a welding mask) will meet the requirement of a face covering. It is also likely that making a 'mask' out of some very thin, flimsy material would suffice. It would not stop the spread of infection, but it would meet the requirements of the regulations.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a plague doctor mask, a gas mask, or a rubber/leather sensory deprivation hood would all be equally compliant.