What are the new rules around face coverings in England? Where must I wear one and can I be fined for not wearing one?

Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott

From Friday, people in England will need to wear a face covering, already mandatory on public transport (which, incidentally excludes cruise ships, school transport, taxis and private hire vehicles) in shops and supermarkets.

But there has been criticism of the government’s messaging over face coverings and there is a some confusion as to exactly where we should be wearing them - and why. 

One minute face masks are deemed unnecessary, even harmful. Then we are told they do offer a degree of protection and the public will now not be able to pop into Pret A Manager for a Posh Cheddar and Pickle baguette without wearing one, before being told takeaways - like Pret - do not, in fact, count as ‘shops’ - if you're eating in. But what about if you're grabbing a coffee?

Young women shopping in Belfast. Credit: PA

The final guidelines were published on July 23 - less than a day before they come into force. This is what we know right now.

Why are we being asked to use them? 

Over the course of the coronavirus outbreak, there has been considerable debate about whether wearing a face covering is effective in controlling the spread of the virus. 

What face coverings do not do is protect the wearer; the point of a face covering is not to protect yourself, but others.

Face coverings shield the nose and mouth, which scientists now know are two sources of airborne transmission, as Covid-19 can spread predominantly by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking, with tiny particles hanging in aerosol form in the air.

What scientists know about this novel virus changes every day. But the best available scientific evidence says that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus in some circumstances. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak wearing a face mask during a visit to the Jobcentre Plus in Barking, east London. Credit: PA

As the UK emerges from lockdown, the public is being asked to take measures to help prevent a second wave as we take tentative steps to help get a creaking economy back on its feet. Wearing a face mask is seen as a precautionary measure as we ease our way back to a semblance of normality.

Does this mean I can stop standing two metres from people?

No. One of the fears scientists had over enforcing face coverings was that people would feel overly protected and would be less vigilant about social distancing and regular hand washing. 

But now we are ‘alert’ to the virus threat and practised in taking measures to control it, it is hoped that people will see face coverings as an additional barrier against Covid-19 rather than a defence in their own right. 

Social distancing and regular hand hygiene remain the best defences in stemming the spread of the infection, but in situations, such as in shops, where it is not always possible to stay two metres, or one metre plus, from your fellow shoppers, masks add an extra layer of protection.

Passenger wears a face mask at a Tube station

What is a face covering?

The public are not being asked to wear surgical face masks, a face covering could be a homemade cloth covering, religious garment or a shop-bought reusable one. 

In the context of Covid-19, whether you wear an Amber Heard-style bandana as a face covering or opt for a blue and white disposable one from your local pharmacy, the important point is that it should cover your mouth and nose and that it fits securely around the side of your face.

Ideally it should include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organization recommends three depending on the fabric used).

But ultimately, it is how you wear it rather than what you wear which remains the vital part.

There should be no gaps between your face and the mask so it fits snugly but isn’t uncomfortable. 

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty has said: “The variation in those is much less important than getting people to do the basics.

“And the basics are, if you’re going to wear one in a high risk area it must cover your nose and mouth." 

Concerns have been raised in the US over N95 masks, as the exhalation valve filters the air you breathe in but not the air you breathe out, which could allow droplets to be released from the mask, putting others nearby at risk, but the UK government have made no statement on this. 

Where should I wear a face covering?

In England, from Friday, you must wear a face covering in a shop and supermarket. What constituents a shop has led to some confusion within government ranks, but we do know you must wear one in indoor shopping centres, banks, post offices and building societies.

On Thursday, the government clarified its position on sandwich shops; you will have to wear one in retailers like Pret if you are grabbing a sandwich and coffee. But you are not required to wear one if you sit down to eat or drink in that area and it is likely takeaway outlets will fall under the same criteria.

Government minister Brandon Lewis told ITV News: "If you're going in to buy your sandwich or your coffee, and leaving again you're treating it as a retail environment and you should be wearing a mask.

It will become mandatory for shoppers to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces as of July 24. Credit: Ben Stansall/PA

He added: "But if you're staying there to eat, and drink, then practicality means, yes you can take your mask off, because then you're there as a hospitality venue rather than a retail venue, that's the simplest way to think of it."

There is remains a certain amount of decision making being left to the public. For example, where undercover outdoor markets fall? And car showrooms?

One thing we do know is that you are definitely not required to wear one at a pub or restaurant, hairdressers and other treatment salons, gyms and leisure centres, cinemas, concert halls and theatres.

How to wear a face covering

According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, a face covering should:

  • cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably

  • fit comfortably but securely against the side of the face

  • be secured to the head with ties or ear loops

  • be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton

  • ideally include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organisation recommends three depending on the fabric used)

  • unless disposable, it should be machine washable

How do you remove a face covering

How you take off your face covering is as important as how and where you wear it.

Do not defeat the purpose of a face covering by constantly touching it - remember your hands are key conductors of infection and there may be virus particles trapped on the outside of the mask that will get on your hands when you touch it.

Here’s how to safely take off a face covering according to the HSE:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing

  • only handle the straps, ties or clips

  • do not share with someone else to use

  • if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a residual waste bin and do not recycle

  • if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser once removed

Can I be fined for not wearing one?

Yes. Shops and supermarkets can refuse you entry if you are not wearing a face covering and police have the powers to enforce the measures. You could be fined up to £100 for refusing to wear one.

But, in reality police are unlikely be called out over someone failing to wear a face covering.

Andy Marsh, chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, told a Facebook Live session on Wednesday his force had “very limited capacity” to enforce the rules, and would only have a role in “a tiny minority” of cases.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick  said if shop keepers are concerned and “have tried everything else”, her officers will try to assist.

They are, like the government and shop staff, relying on the public to play their part.

  • How to make your own face covering

Are there exceptions?

Yes there are. In England, children under the age of 11 do not have to wear a mask; in Scotland only the under fives are exempt.

People with a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability that prohibits you from wearing a face covering, or wearing a face covering causes severe distress, will also be exempt from fines. 

You are also permitted to remove your face covering in certain situations, such as if a shop assistant asks you for age identification, if a police officer asks you to or if the person you are speaking to relies on lip reading. 

Face coverings can also be removed to eat or drink or take medication.