October 22, 2020

Coronavirus: Who should wear a face mask or face covering?

Woman at railway station wearing a face mask Image copyright Alamy

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested face coverings could be made compulsory in shops in England. In Scotland, it is already mandatory to wear a covering while inside a shop.

Face coverings are currently required on public transport in England and Scotland.

This is in line with updated World Health Organization (WHO) advice, which says non-medical face coverings should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible.

In England, they should also be worn by hospital staff, outpatients and visitors.

What are the face covering rules on public transport?

Anyone travelling by bus, train, ferry or plane in England should wear a face covering to help reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The rules were introduced to coincide with a further easing of lockdown which was expected to increase the number of people using public transport.

Some passengers are exempt from the rules including:

  • Children under 11
  • People with disabilities
  • Those with breathing difficulties
  • Anyone travelling with someone who relies on lip reading

If it is “reasonably necessary” for you to eat or drink, you can remove the face covering to do so.

The rules apply only on public transport – not while waiting – but the rail industry asks people to cover their face as they enter a station.

People can be refused travel if they don’t follow the rules, and can be fined as a last resort.

Public transport excludes cruise ships, school transport, taxis and private hire vehicles. However, ride-sharing company Uber is making face coverings compulsory.

On 10 July, Mr Johnson suggested that the face covering rule could be extended to shops as well. He said: “We need to be stricter in insisting that people wear face coverings in confined places where they are meeting people that they don’t normally meet.”

Senior government sources said that while no decision has yet been made, it’s an issue that’s being kept under review.

Image copyright Getty Images

What about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, it is also compulsory to wear face coverings on all public transport, including buses, planes, ferries and taxis. Since 10 July, face coverings are also mandatory in Scotland’s shops.

As in England, there are some exemptions. Children under five, people with breathing difficulties, and those with a physical condition which makes it hard to keep a mask in place are not required to cover their face. Drivers behind a protective shield are also exempt.

Again, young children and people with certain health conditions will be exempt.

People in Wales are being asked to wear non-medical face coverings where social distancing is not possible – including on public transport. But the government stopped short of making their use mandatory.

Plans to make wearing face masks on public transport compulsory in Northern Ireland have been put on hold, pending legal clarification.

Where am I supposed to get a face covering?

The government has been careful to use the term “face covering” rather than “face mask”.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps said passengers should wear “the kind of face covering you can easily make at home” – with surgical masks kept for medical use.

Image copyright Getty Images

Common household items, such as cotton fabric from old T-shirts or bedding, can be turned into face coverings.

The BBC has created a guide on how to make your own. The government has issued its own advice too.

What are the face covering rules in hospitals?

All hospital visitors and outpatients in England are being told to wear non-medical face coverings – although no-one will be denied care, and coverings will be provided by hospitals if necessary.

NHS England has lifted its suspension of hospital visiting – but rules are at the discretion of individual trusts.

Health staff have to wear surgical masks at all times, in all areas.

The most protective mask for health staff is an FFP3 or, alternatively, an N95 or an FFP2.

What is the World Health Organization advice?

The WHO has updated its guidelines on face masks – and now recommends non-medical, fabric coverings should be worn by anyone aged under 60 on public transport and in some enclosed work environments.

It says they could provide “a barrier for potentially infectious droplets” in areas where “physical distancing of at least one metre is not possible”.

The WHO recommends people aged over 60, or anyone of any age with an underlying health condition, should wear a medical-grade mask in those environments.

The same goes for anyone with Covid-19 symptoms (even mild) and those caring for them.

Healthcare workers should wear medical masks when providing any patient care.

Do face coverings work?

Coronavirus is spread when droplets are sprayed into the air when infected people talk, cough or sneeze. Those droplets can then fall on surfaces.

Homemade cloth face coverings can help reduce the spread from people who are contagious but have no symptoms or are yet to develop symptoms. This is called asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission.

Scientists in Singapore suggest the contagion risk is especially high in the 24-48 hours before an infected person is even aware they might have the disease.

There is a risk of contamination when taking a face covering on and off – the WHO has issued advice.

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?