Last updated: 15 July 2021
Face covering rules are changing, but you still need to carry one with you, as you might be required to wear one in certain situations.
We've rounded up the latest advice on face coverings below. Follow the links below to jump to a certain section:
Across the UK, ride-sharing company Uber has made it mandatory for both passengers and drivers to wear masks while taking trips.
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:
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.
Children under a certain age are also exempt:
The 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 nowupdated 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.
All are clear that higher-grade medical respirator masks should be reserved for frontline health workers, where they are needed most.
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.
Try to go for three layers, but at least two - our face mask tests showed a clear difference between single-layer face coverings and those with a double or triple layer. Even better if your multiple layers are made from different fabrics.
Single-layer stretchy face masks were the least effective at filtration. They were better than nothing at all, but in some cases only marginally.
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.
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:
The evidence is 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.
This is also important to prevent asymptomatic people - who may be unaware that they have COVID-19 - from spreading the virus.
Dr Chris Hui, Clinical Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University and Honorary Consultant in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at the Royal Free Hospital London 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'.
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 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.
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.
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.
Homemade cloth masks can be reused, but should be washed thoroughly after every use in a soap solution.
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.
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.
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.