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

In 2020 and during this year, face mask rules across the UK have changed and differed regularly. Rules in England have been relaxed for some time, whilst in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they have largely stayed in place. Now, England is reintroducing face masks in a number of indoor settings, including shops, shopping centres and on public transport.

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: 03/12/2021

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

After the vaccination programme proved successful, all lockdown restrictions, including wearing a face mask in many settings, were eased in England in July 2021.

However, from Tuesday 30th November 2021, some restrictions will be temporally reimposed due to a new variant, Omicron, first discovered in South Africa.

Because it is unclear how transmissible the new variant is or how effective the vaccines are against it, people across the UK will have to wear face masks in shops and public transport. In addition, anyone returning from an international country will have to take a PCR test, whether they’re fully vaccinated or not.

So far there have been nine cases of the new variant found in the UK – three in England and six in Scotland – with some reports saying that some of these people haven’t been abroad, meaning the virus has begun spreading within local communities.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have largely continued to make face masks mandatory but England is the only UK region to reinstate the rule. It will stay in place for three weeks then be reviewed again in mid-December.

As well as face masks, businesses such as theatres and nightclubs are also encouraged to use the NHS Covid Pass as a way of letting guests show proof of a vaccine, a negative test or immunity.

Although face masks are compulsory again, in certain circumstances, disabled people and those with health conditions will continue to be 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 disposable 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.

You can find out more about these types of coverings in our article on filter vs medical vs fabric face masks

You can buy disposable face masks on the Disability Horizons Shop, along with other Covid essentials, including plastic gloves and extra-thick aprons.

Disposable surgical face mask

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 27th November 2021, the Government announced that face masks are mandatory again across the UK following the new Omicron variant.

Broadly speaking, throughout the UK, face masks have to be worn by customers and staff in public indoor places (aside from hospitality), particularly if they are crowded and enclosed, and where you may come into contact with people you do not normally meet.

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

  • shops and supermarkets – places that offer goods or services for retail sale or hire. This includes shops within other premises, such as visitor attractions, for examples gift shops or museums.
  • shopping centres – malls and indoor markets – and retail galleries
  • 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
  • public transport (aeroplanes, trains, trams, buses, coaches and ferries), taxis and private hire vehicles
  • transport hubs – airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals
  • takeaways places without space for the consumption of food or drink on the premises
  • any car or small van during a professionally delivered driving lesson, a practical driving test, or during one of the practical tests for giving driving instruction, and in all HGV lessons and tests
  • estate and letting agents
  • retail travel agents
  • veterinary services
  • pharmacies
  • 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.

Face coverings are not legally required in hospitality settings, as well as places of worship, cinemas and public libraries or community premises, although they are advised.

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 had to wear face coverings in classes. However, due to the new Omicron variant, face masks will be compulsory for all secondary pupils and staff in communal areas.

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

Secondary schools in Wales stopped making face mask compulsory in mid-November but may change their guidelines following the Omicron variant in the next few days.

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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