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Coronavirus: where and when do you need a face covering?

Find out what the latest advice is on face masks and the key information you need to know about using one

Coronavirus: where and when do you need a face covering?

Last updated: 24 September

Face covering rules have now been extended in England, to include more hospitality settings and retail and hospitality staff.

In England, Scotland and Wales, face coverings are mandatory in most enclosed public spaces. The rules cover public transport, hospitals, shops, museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship.

It also applies to takeaways, indoor shopping centres, banks, building societies and post offices.

Fines of up to £200 in England, and £60 in Scotland and Wales may be issued for non-compliance, but certain groups are exempt. This includes children under 11 in England and Wales and under five in Scotland, and people with a disability for whom wearing a mask would cause physical or mental distress. There are also some exemptions for retail and transport staff.

In England, people now have to wear a face covering in restaurants and pubs except when seated at a table (for example, when getting up to use the toilet, and walking to and from your table).

We’ve rounded up the latest advice on face coverings below. Follow the links below to jump to a certain section:

Face covering buying and making guide – we explain where you can buy reusable cloth masks, what type to look for, and how to make your own

What’s the current UK advice about face masks and coverings?

  • England – face coverings are currently required on public transport and in transport hubs, in shops and when visiting hospital or attending as an out-patient, and in other enclosed public spaces. Shops include supermarkets, takeaways, indoor shopping centres, banks, building societies and post offices. Enclosed public spaces cover things like indoor tourist sites and entertainment venues, premises providing personal care and beauty treatments, and places of worship. Face coverings will be mandatory in communal areas and corridors in secondary schools where local lockdowns are in place. You also have to wear one in restaurants and pubs when not seated at your table.
  • Scotland – face coverings are required in shops, on public transport and in transport hubs, and in certain other indoor public spaces like indoor tourist sites, places of worship, cinemas, banks and post offices. You do not have to wear on in hospitality settings where there is table service, or at the gym. Secondary school students will have to wear face coverings when moving around the school – for example in corridors and in communal areas in the school. This doesn’t apply to classrooms where social distancing will be in place.
  • Northern Ireland – face coverings are mandatory on public transport and in shops.
  • Wales – face coverings are mandatory on public transport, and in most enclosed public spaces.

Across the UK, ride-sharing company Uber has made it mandatory for both passengers and drivers to wear masks while taking trips.

Rules for face coverings in schools

Scotland has announced that secondary school students will have to wear face coverings in communal spaces at school.

This will also be the case in certain parts of England where there are local lockdowns, and is encouraged but not mandatory in Northern Ireland and Wales.

The rule does not apply to classrooms, where social distancing will be in place.

The reasoning behind face mask rules

The UK government has said that wearing a face covering is not intended to help the wearer, but ‘to protect against inadvertent transmission of the disease to others if you have it asymptomatically.’

While social distancing and good hand hygiene remain the key ways to prevent the spread of the virus, the belief is that face coverings can help in situations where social distancing is difficult to achieve, such as on public transport or in shops.

It has stressed that surgical face masks and medical grade respirators should be left for healthcare and other frontline workers.

Who is exempt from wearing a face mask?

There are some exemptions to who should wear a face covering, including young children and people with breathing difficulties.

In situations where face coverings are mandatory, legitimate reasons not to wear one include:

  • if you are not able to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, or for whom it would cause severe distress or difficulty
  • if you are are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • if you need to remove the face covering to eat, drink, or take medication
  • if a police officer or other official asks you to remove the mask
  • if you need to remove a mask or not wear one in an emergency situation to avoid harm or injury
  • retail staff are exempt from wearing a face covering

Transport workers who are behind a protective screen are specifically exempt in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In England, the mandatory rules on public transport and in shops do not apply to staff, though many may choose to wear a face covering where social distancing isn’t possible.

You can download a face mask exemption card on the government website.

What age children are exempt?

Children under a certain age are also exempt:

  • Northern Ireland – children under 13 don’t have to wear face coverings and school transport is exempt
  • England and Wales – children under 11 are exempt
  • Scotland – children under five are exempt

Problems with mask rules

There is a risk that the introduction of mandatory mask rules without equality of access to masks (either to buy or make) could deepen health inequalities related to coronavirus, disproportionately affecting those who must use public transport, key workers or those with complex health needs.

Research from Disability Rights UK found that 40% of disabled people fear being challenged for not wearing a face covering on public transport, which raises questions around how social stigma surrounding those who are unable to wear masks might be addressed.

Some charities, as well as the government are providing face mask exemption cards that people can  print and use.

More widespread use of masks has also caused concern for those who rely on lip reading to communicate.

Anecdotally, there is also an issue with lack of awareness of how to wear masks properly. Many people report seeing others wearing their masks under their nose or chin, which defeats the purpose.

Find out more about the Coronavirus safety measures in shops

What are the rules on face masks in other countries?

More and more countries are encouraging or or have made mandatory the wearing of face masks by the public.

The majority of countries around the world have some form of mask recommendation or law in place, whether it be in all public areas (for example in Spain, Belgium, Poland, Mexico, Indonesia and Morocco) or in certain situations like on public transport or in shops.

The outliers are those that have not recommended mask usage, like Sweden.

What do the health organisations say about face masks?

There has been a great deal of debate around face masks and research into their effectiveness as a public health measure is ongoing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) originally said that healthy people only needed to wear a mask if they were taking care of a person with COVID-19, and cautioned about the risks of mask-wearing instilling a false sense of security in the wearer and leading to them becoming lax about crucial measures such as social distancing and handwashing.

It also said that ‘non-medical or cloth masks could increase potential for COVID-19 to infect a person if the mask is contaminated by dirty hands and touched often, or kept on other parts of the face or head and then placed back over the mouth and nose.’

But it has now updated its advice on face masks, saying that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in situations where social distancing isn’t possible, such as on public transport and in shops.

It advises a home-made three-layer mask for most people, and that the over-60’s consider wearing ‘medical’ masks in areas with high rates of community transmission.

The new advice remains cautious, however, advising local policy makers to take into account contextual factors like the risk of infection, vulnerability of the population, availability of masks, and resources required when recommending face masks or making them mandatory.

It also clarifies that ‘medical’ masks means the basic surgical-type disposable ones, not higher-grade respirators such as N95 masks.

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) suggests that homemade masks may be useful to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by asymptomatic people in confined spaces, but acknowledges the evidence for this is currently weak.

All are clear that higher-grade medical respirator masks should be reserved for frontline health workers, where they are needed most.

Face masks: what’s the evidence for them?

A big part of the debate around the efficacy of face masks for general public use stems from what we still don’t really know about this new coronavirus: how far it can travel in the air and how likely it is you would catch the disease from airborne particles alone.

There is also a limited amount of randomised control data available on whether the widespread use of masks prevents the spread of diseases such as the new coronavirus.

A meta-analysis of nearly 1,000 studies around influenza transmission by Professor Ben Cowling, Head of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Hong Kong University, found that the use of face masks, in combination with hand hygiene, was more effective against laboratory-confirmed influenza than hand hygiene alone.

Dr Christopher Hui, Clinical Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University and Honorary Consultant in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at the Royal Free Hospital London, says: ‘We believe that face masks help prevent droplet and aerosol spread primarily by capturing the droplets as they exit our airways at velocity when coughing, sneezing or talking at volume.’

This is important because even these small droplets can carry a significant viral load that has been demonstrated to survive for periods of hours or even days.

The change in UK government advice has come after ‘careful consideration of the latest scientific evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).’

Previously, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries said the fact that the issue has been debated at length by the UK government’s scientific advisors suggests that the evidence isn’t quite so clear, whereas the evidence for measures such as hand hygiene and social distancing is more solid.

Hand washing and social distancing remain the most important actions to take to protect yourself and others from coronavirus.

Find out more about hand hygiene, soap and sanitiser gel

How many layers should a mask have?

The WHO has advised that people ideally use a three-layer mask, as this is thought to be more effective than a single or double layer. UK government advice recommends at least two layers, and the Welsh government specifically recommends three.

A new study, which tested one and two layer masks made from cotton t-shirt material along with disposable surgical masks found that while one layer is better than nothing, two are ‘significantly better at reducing the droplet spread caused by coughing and sneezing.’

The researchers said three layers would be even better.

The test was done by using a LED lighting system and a high-speed camera to capture the light scattered by droplets and aerosols expelled during speaking, coughing and sneezing while wearing the different types of mask. It was published in the journal Thorax by experts at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Do face coverings affect your health?

Some claims doing the rounds on social media about face masks limiting your intake of oxygen or raising your CO2 to dangerous levels have been debunked by scientists.

While it is important to make sure you can breathe properly while wearing a face covering, when worn correctly they do not cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.

As for inhaling more CO2, carbon dioxide particles are much too small to be trapped by any mask that is breathable, so you won’t be breathing in the same air you breathe out into the mask.

On both points, medics have highlighted the fact that surgeons and healthcare workers wear much heavier-duty PPE for longer periods of time and do not experience the above issues as a result of wearing a mask.

Does wearing a face mask protect you from catching coronavirus?

There has been confusion about who a face mask is intended to protect: the wearer, or those around them.

There are two basic types of mask:

  • Standard medical / surgical masks aren’t considered to provide comprehensive protection against coronavirus, as there are gaps round the edges where smaller airborne particles can still get in.
  • Higher-grade medical respirator masks (such as the N95 or FFP2 or FFP3 types) provide a higher level of protection, but they aren’t appropriate for use by the general public as they require specialist fitting to be effective, and are only considered necessary for health workers in high-risk frontline settings such as treating coronavirus patients in hospital.

Those in favour of face masks argue that wearing a face covering similar to a surgical mask is more about protecting others and preventing the spread of the disease, rather than protecting yourself – though ultimately the more people wear them the more we are all protected in theory.

Some doctors believe that this is particularly important to prevent asymptomatic people – who may be unaware that they have COVID-19 – from spreading the virus. This is echoed in the UK government guidance.

Dr Hui says that ‘much of the effectiveness with wearing a face mask is to stop the outward spread of droplets from the airways. This protects others from a sneeze or cough when we are out in the community’.

This is particularly important in places where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing, such as on public transport.

In this way, face masks are hoped to serve as an additional measure to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, in the same way that supermarkets and pharmacies have introduced measures such as social distancing and limiting the number of people in a shop at one time.

The problem with disposable face masks

One of the big concerns around advocating the use of face masks is that it could significantly worsen shortages of protective equipment for NHS and other frontline workers, whose need is far greater.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already said that it would be nearly impossible for the government to supply face masks to the public, and the medical-grade masks that do exist should be kept for health workers on the frontline.

Surgical masks are single-use products that should be replaced as soon as they are damp or after one use – another reason why they are unlikely to be a practical solution for sustained daily use. At around 60p per mask, the cost of using several per day could really add up. They are also non-recyclable.

You should also be wary of high-grade or surgical masks for sale on online marketplaces, as they are likely to be sold at inflated prices, and could even be fake.

Dust masks and anti-pollution masks

Dust masks for DIY and building work, and commuter-style anti-pollution masks, are another option some people have turned to, but they may not be suitable if they feature an exhalation valve.

This is because the valve, which is designed to make it easier to breathe, lets you exhale unfiltered air out, so this type of mask isn’t suitable for protecting others in the community.

They are also not washable so you have the same problem of needing a steady supply, and the cost and environmental implications of this.

What about face shields?

Face shields or face visors are thought to provide a limited amount of protection, but they should not be seen as an alternative to masks.

A study in Japan found that these clear shields are ineffective at trapping aerosols, and therefore aren’t very useful in reducing virus transmission.

Watch out for counterfeit coronavirus medicines being sold online, and if you’ve seen examples of inflated prices online, report price-gouging to Which? to let us know.

How to make a face mask and use it safely

If you do decide to use a face covering, it’s vitally important to follow the guidance on how to do this properly, otherwise you could end up increasing your risk of infection.

The WHO has helpful instructions on how to use a face mask properly, these include:

  • Wash your hands before putting on the mask
  • Make sure the mask covers your mouth and nose, and fits snugly without gaps
  • Avoid touching the mask while using it
  • To remove the mask, remove it from behind (don’t touch the front), dispose of it immediately (if it’s a single use mask) and wash your hands afterwards

Homemade cloth masks can be reused, but should be washed thoroughly after every use in a soap solution.

How to make your own face covering

There are numerous tutorials online for making your own face mask.

If you have the materials and wish to sew one, there are patterns to follow – watch our video above for an example. If you don’t, it’s also possible to fashion a mask without having to sew anything.

The UK government has instructions for different ways to make a mask at home, including one that doesn’t require any sewing. The Welsh government has published guidance on how to make a three layer face mask.

Some people have recommended adding a fresh paper towel or coffee filter between the mask layers each time that you wear it, for added filtration.

Bear in mind the evidence for homemade masks is thin on the ground, and they are not recommended for use in clinical settings.

You shouldn’t consider them a protective measure for yourself – maintaining strict social distancing and other hygiene precautions are still your best personal protective measures against coronavirus.

For more advice on buying or making a face covering, see our full face mask guide.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.

This story was originally published on 29 April 2020, but has been regularly updated since to reflect the changing guidance on face coverings in the UK.

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