Face Masks & the Equality Act

Shops and public transport providers could face legal action if people who are exempt from wearing face masks due to their disability are turned away, legal experts have warned. 

Although wearing face masks and coverings is a key policy to prevent a second wave in the UK. campaigners have warned that the obstructive nature of face coverings could cause serious problems for disabled people. 

With this in mind thousands of people with disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask were made exempt, but there are fears that the new rules could lead discrimination against them in public places – by disabled people facing confrontation. 

Legal experts have warned that shops, supermarkets and public transport providers could face legal action if staff turn away disabled people who are exempt from wearing masks. 

The legislation clearly states that some people are exempt from the new rules which require members of the public to wear a face covering when in a shop, confined public space, or on public transport.

While it’s relatively easy to see if a child is of a certain age, some disabilities are less apparent and there are reports to suggest that some people are being singled out as a result. That amounts to discrimination.

It is essential that supermarkets and shop managers educate their employees over the rights of disabled people specifically with the terms of the new legislation in mind to prevent individuals being refused entry, turned away or asked to leave.

If not, they would be in breach of the Regulations introduced in relation to the wearing of face coverings and potentially their Equality Act Duties. 

Disability charities have warned that face coverings could cause serious issues – both practical and social – for some and have warned that disabled people and their needs have been routinely forgotten throughout this crisis. 


When you do not need to wear a face covering

In settings where face coverings are required in England there are some circumstances where people may not be able to wear a face covering.

Please be mindful and respectful of such circumstances. Some people are less able to wear face coverings, and the reasons for this may not be visible to others.

This includes (but is not limited to):

  • children under the age of 11 (Public Health England does not recommend face coverings for children under the age of 3 for health and safety reasons)
  • people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • where 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
  • to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others ‒ including if it would negatively impact on your ability to exercise or participate in a strenuous activity
  • police officers and other emergency workers, given that this may interfere with their ability to serve the public

There are also scenarios when you are permitted to remove a face covering:

  • if asked to do so in a bank, building society, or post office for identification
  • if asked to do so by shop staff or relevant employees for identification, for assessing health recommendations (for example by a pharmacist) or for age identification purposes, including when buying age restricted products such as alcohol
  • if required in order to receive treatment or services, for example when getting a facial
  • in order to take medication
  • if you are delivering a sermon or prayer in a place of worship
  • if you are the persons getting married in a relevant place
  • if you are undertaking exercise or an activity and it would negatively impact your ability to do so
  • if you are an elite sports person, professional dancer or referee acting in the course of your employment
  • when seated to eat or drink in a hospitality premise such as a pub, bar, restaurant or cafe. You must put a face covering back on once you finish eating or drinking

The government’s guidance for keeping workers and customers safe during COVID-19 in restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services clearly advises that designated indoor seating areas for customers to eat or drink should at this time only be open for table service, where possible, alongside additional infection control measures.

Exemption cards

If you have an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering:

  • you do not routinely need to show any written evidence of this
  • you do not need show an exemption card

This means that you do not need to seek advice or request a letter from a medical professional about your reason for not wearing a face covering.

However, some people may feel more comfortable showing something that says they do not have to wear a face covering. This could be in the form of an exemption card, badge or even a home-made sign.

Carrying an exemption card or badge is a personal choice and is not required by law.

If you wish to use an exemption card or badge, you can download exemption card templates. You can then print these yourself or show them on a mobile device. Please note that the government is not able to provide physical exemption cards or badges.

For exemptions in different parts of the UK please refer to the specific guidance for Northern IrelandScotland and Wales.

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