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Face mask exemptions: how to ensure you don’t get fined if you’re exempt

Face mask rules across much of the UK mean that everyone must wear a face covering when inside most public places. This includes on public transport, in shops and shopping centres, at many tourist attractions and entertainment venues, salons, and most recently, hospitality settings, such as restaurants and pubs.

But what if that is difficult for you to do because of a disability or health condition? We explain the new rules around face masks, who is exempt from wearing one and how our face mask exemption card helps to ensure you don’t get fined.

LAST UPDATE: 12/07/2021

Since June 2020, the UK has seen a number of changes to the rules around when and where face masks must be worn.

With all lockdown restrictions in England easing from 19th July 2021 and the vaccination programme in full swing, many people will start doing more – returning to work, socialising and taking part in leisure activities.

The dates for full easing of restrictions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will differ and be decided over the coming days and weeks.

The remaining restrictions in England to be lifted on 19th July include:

  • face masks no longer mandatory
  • social distancing no longer mandatory
  • unlimited gatherings indoors and outdoors
  • hugging family and friends
  • cafes, pubs and restaurants serving food and drink indoors with unlimited customers
  • attending cinemas, theatres, nightclubs, sport events, museums, bowling alleys, soft play centres and other indoor attractions at unlimited capacity

The Government has advised people to ease with caution and should still wear face coverings in crowded places such as public transport and large venues.

Businesses such as theatres and nightclubs are also encouraged to use the NHS Covid certificate as a way of letting guests show proof of a vaccine, a negative test or immunity.

People in England, Scotland and Wales can also go on holiday abroad, although there are only 11 countries and territories we can visit. These are on the Government’s green travel list and include Iceland, Gibraltar, and Singapore.

In addition, from 19th July, people who are double vaccinated can return to the UK from amber list countries without having to quarantine.

Although the Prime Minister believes the relaxation of all restrictions is irreversible, there is no guarantee that some restrictions – such as face masks – will not return in the future.

Therefore if face masks do become compulsory again, in certain circumstances, disabled people and those with health conditions are exempt from wearing a face mask.

Read on for more information, and head to the Disability Horizons Shop to buy our face mask exemption card to help stop you from being refused travel or entry. 

You can also buy our social distancing lanyard and card or colourful sash to help you stay safe.

Face masks: the different types

There are a few different types of face masks or coverings:

  • Surgical/medical masks – these disposables masks are usually made from three layers of material. They help to stop large droplets infected with Covid-19 from spreading, for example, if they are coughed or sneezed out by the wearer. They also help to stop droplets from others getting to the wearer’s mouth and nose.
  • Filter face masks – these offer additional protection by filtering out smaller droplets for both the wearer and others (depending on the type of filter).
  • Face shield and visor – plastic shields and visors either cover the entire face or top of it, stopping large droplets from reaching the wearer. They can be worn with other types of masks for added protection.
  • General or fabric face coverings – made from a range of different fabrics, these also stop the spread of large droplets, protecting others from Covid-19 if the wearer has it – more on this below. These are the type the public is being told to wear.

Read our full guide to filter vs medical vs fabric face masks to find out all you need to know.

You can also head to the Disability Horizons Shop to buy covid essentials, including disposable face masks, plastic gloves and extra-thick aprons.

Disposable surgical face mask

Face coverings – what’s the difference?

Face masks or coverings, also called general, cloth or fabric coverings, can be bought or made at home.

The most effective types have three layers of fabric – an absorbent layer on the inside, a middle layer that filters and a top layer that is water-proof.

They come in a range of patterns and colours, and can be made at home from old clothing. You can also simply use a scarf or balaclava, as long as it fits snuggly around your nose and mouth.

Although they limit the spread of droplets coughed or sneezed out by the person wearing one, there is little evidence to suggest that they protect the wearer.

The UK Government recommends that the general public wears these types of masks on public transport so that others are reserved for health workers and those more vulnerable to Covid-19.

You can find out more about these types of coverings and what the Government recommends in our article on filter vs medical vs fabric face masks.

You can buy disposable face masks on the Disability Horizons Shop now. 

Face masks rules

Last year, the rules on when you must wear a face mask changed repeatedly. They have also been at odds depending on where in the UK you live – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales.

On 22nd September, the Government announced new additions to the rules and, for the most part, they are now the same wherever you are.

As of 19th July 2021, face masks will no longer be mandatory but are still strongly advised to be worn in crowded places such as public transport and large venues.

The below information is relevant if face masks become compulsory again in the future.

Broadly speaking, throughout the UK, face masks have to be worn by customers and staff in public indoor places, particularly where social distancing may be difficult and where you will come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.

More specifically, face masks must be worn in the following places, with examples for each area:

  • public transport – aeroplanes, trains, trams and buses
  • transport hubs – airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals
  • taxis and private hire vehicles – both customers and drivers
  • shops and supermarkets – places that offer goods or services for retail sale or hire
  • shopping centres – malls and indoor markets
  • bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes – except when seated at a table to eat or drink
  • places providing legal or financial services – post offices, banks, building societies, high-street solicitors and accountants, credit unions, short-term loan providers, savings clubs and money service businesses
  • places offering personal care and beauty treatments – hair salons, barbers, nail salons, massage centres, tattoo and piercing parlours
  • visitor attractions and entertainment venues – museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, cultural and heritage sites, aquariums, indoor zoos and visitor farms, bingo halls, amusement arcades, adventure activity centres, indoor sports stadiums, funfairs, theme parks, casinos, skating rinks, bowling alleys, indoor play areas including soft-play areas
  • funeral service providers – funeral homes, crematoria and burial ground chapels
  • community centres, youth centres and social clubs
  • exhibition halls and conference centres
  • libraries and public reading rooms
  • public areas in hotels and hostels
  • storage and distribution facilities
  • veterinary services
  • estate and letting agents
  • places of worship
  • auction houses

You also need to wear a face covering in NHS settings, including hospitals and primary or community care settings, such as GP surgeries.

These face mask rules are still in place from 17th May 2021, despite the restrictions having eased following a third national lockdown in January 2021.

The list above is from the Government website for England, but they largely apply elsewhere too.

However, do keep in mind that there are differences in examples used by different Governments. For instance, some of the places listed above aren’t explicitly mentioned elsewhere, so please do check the Government website for where you live:

If you’re unsure whether a rule applies or not, we’d recommend wearing a face covering anyway if you are able to.

Enforcing face masks in the UK

In England and Northern Ireland, if you’re caught without a face mask, you’ll be denied access to the premises and fined £200 – up from £100. This can be reduced to £100 if it is paid within 14 days.

If you are a repeat offender, the fines will double each time – for example, £400 on the second occurrence and £800 on the third – and there won’t be a discount. Fines can be issued up to a maximum of £6,400.

In Scotland and Wales, a £60 fine can be imposed (halving to £30 if paid within 28 days). Repeat offenders face bigger fines.

As an employee in other work contexts, it’s up to individual businesses to assess whether PPE is necessary for any particular context, not listed above, so check the rules for your particular work setting with your employer.

Face masks rules in schools

As of the 17th May 2021, secondary school pupils in England no longer have to wear face coverings in classes. However, individual schools may still insist that their pupils still continue to wear them.

In Scotland, staff and pupils in high schools should wear face coverings in classrooms, communal areas and corridors.

Secondary schools in Wales are recommended to wear face coverings when social distancing is unlikely to be maintained.

Face coverings must be worn in post-primary schools and on public and school transport in Northern Ireland.

If you’re concerned about wearing a face mask and don’t think you’re exempt, try these face mask bracket inserts (pictured below) to help make breathing in a mask easier. 

Breathing face mask bracket insert

Face mask exemptions

In England and Wales, these rules don’t apply to children under the age of 11 – under 5 in Scotland and 13 in Northern Ireland – and across the UK some disabled people or those with health conditions where there is a legitimate or reasonable reason not to, as listed under Government guidelines. This includes:

  • if you cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • if putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress
  • if you are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate (take a look at our lip-reading exemption card).

To put this into context, exemptions can apply if you have a disability or condition that would make it very difficult to wear a face covering.

For example, if you have a respiratory condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or bronchitis, you may find it too difficult to breathe through a face covering.

If you have a learning difficulty, sensory processing disorder or neurodivergent condition, wearing a mask could be too overwhelming.

If you have communication difficulties, speech impairment or find it hard to express yourself with a mask on, especially if you are non-verbal, a mask would be difficult.

This could also be the case if you have a mental health condition or invisible disability, such as dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety or have experienced violence or abuse.

This list is not exhaustive and there will be many other disabilities that would make wearing a mask very difficult.

If you need to lip-read, you might want to try a lip-reading face mask for you and your companion, and our ‘I need to lip-read card’ card. 

Black lip-reading face mask with clear plastic centre

Other exemptions apply to some employees in indoor settings, such as transport workers, police and emergency workers, and some specific situations, such as if you’re exercising and wearing one would impact your ability to participate.

You can also remove your mask for a short time in certain circumstances, such as:

  • if you need to avoid a threat, harm or injury
  • if you are asked to do so for identification, for example in a bank or pharmacy
  • to receive treatment or services, such as when getting a medical procedure
  • because you need to eat, say because you’re diabetic
  • to take medication.

Visit the Government website for the full list of reasons. These exemptions are similar in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, although please do check for details where you live.

Face mask exemption card

Face mask exemption cardIf you have a disability or condition that falls into one of the categories listed above, you can self-certify as being exempt – you don’t have to provide proof.

To help ensure you feel more comfortable, we’ve created an exemption card for those who have a genuine reason to not wear a mask.

Our mask exemption card comes on a lanyard or badge clip. It is a durable, portable pass that you can wear around your neck or pinned to your coat or top while travelling or shopping.

It provides staff and others around you with immediate and simple-to-understand information regarding your mask exemption.

The bright red lanyard has ‘MASK EXEMPT’ written in white capital letters so it is easy to see. The credit card-sized ID badge further explains your mask exemption as being due to a “disability/health condition”. Both can be seen and read at a safe distance.

There isn’t a legal requirement to wear a lanyard or display any form of exemption, but our card will give you an easy and quick way to convey your medical exemption.

There is also the option to purchase the ID card with a badge clip instead of a lanyard, which can be worn on shirts, tops or coats.

The pocked-sized design of the ID, badge clip and lanyard means it can be stored in your coat or bag making it easy to access and put around your neck or pin to you.

The badge costs just £2.95, the lanyard £3.95 and for it is £4.95 for both.

Head to the Disability Horizons Shop now to buy your face mask exemption card on a lanyard or as a badge to make sure you’re covered when you travel and shop.

Please note, these cards are ONLY designed for people with a genuine reason for not wearing a mask. If you do not have a legitimate reason listed under Government guidelines, you’re open to being fined.


By Disability Horizons

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