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Face coverings and face masks Q&A: Everything you need to know

Face coverings are already mandatory on public transport and in NHS buildings in England and, from Friday (July 24), you will be required by law to wear them in shops, supermarkets, banks, building societies, post offices and transport hubs.

You will be required to wear a face covering when you go to the supermarket
You will be required to wear a face covering when you go to the supermarket

You could face a £100 fine if you fail to do so - although there are some exemptions, including anyone under the age of 11, or those with disability who find it hard to wear one.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have previously advised that population-wide use of masks, combined with physical distancing and good hygiene practices such as hand-washing, can help prevent further waves of Covid-19.

Health and care secretary Matt Hancock said: “As we move into the next stage of easing restrictions for the public, it is vital we continue to shop safely so that we can make the most of our fantastic retail industry this summer.

“Everyone must play their part in fighting this virus by following this new guidance. I also want to thank the British public for all the sacrifices they are making to help keep this country safe.”

Following updated government advice issued on July 23, here are all the answers to your questions below.

1. What is a face covering?

Face coverings safely cover the nose and mouth. They can be the reusable or single-use kind. You could also use a scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering but these must securely fit round the side of the face.

Face coverings are not classified as PPE (personal protective equipment) - such as surgical masks or respirators, which are used in medical and industrial settings.

Instead, face coverings are largely intended to protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of virus that causes the coronavirus infection.

2. Why should I wear a face covering?

The coronavirus spreads predominantly by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking. These droplets can also be picked up from surfaces, if you touch a surface and then your face without washing your hands first. This is why social distancing, regular hand hygiene, and covering coughs and sneezes is so important in controlling the spread of the virus.

The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering reduces the spread of coronavirus droplets, helping to protect others.

They are not, however, a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing.

3. How should I wear a face covering?

A face covering should:

  • cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably
  • fit comfortably but securely against the side of the face
  • be secured to the head with ties or ear loops
  • be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton
  • ideally include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organisation recommends three depending on the fabric used)
  • unless disposable, it should be able to be washed with other items of laundry according to fabric washing instructions and dried without causing the face covering to be damaged

When wearing a face covering you should:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on
  • avoid wearing on your neck or forehead
  • avoid touching the part of the face covering in contact with your mouth and nose, as it could be contaminated with the virus
  • change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it

When removing a face covering:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing
  • only handle the straps, ties or clips
  • do not share with someone else to use
  • if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a residual waste bin and do not recycle
  • if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser once removed
Don’t forget your mask when you go shopping
Don’t forget your mask when you go shopping

4. When must I wear a face covering?

In England, you must by law wear a face covering when using public transport or in NHS buildings, and, from July 24, 2020, in shops, supermarkets, banks, building societies and post offices, plus transport hubs including indoor train stations and terminals, airports, maritime ports, and indoor bus and coach stations or terminals.

You will be expected to wear a face covering before entering any shop or supermarket and must keep this on until you leave.

If a shop or supermarket has a café or seating area for you to eat and drink, then you can remove your face covering in this area only. You must put a face covering back on once you leave your seating area.

Face coverings will be required in cafes or take-away restaurants that do not provide table service, other than in designated seating areas.

You are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing may be difficult and where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.

5. What places do I not have to wear a face covering?

Wearing a face covering will not be made mandatory in other venues that have measures in place to protect staff and the public from Covid-19. These include:

  • Hairdressers and close contact services
  • Eat-in restaurants, cafes and pubs.
  • Entertainment venues, including cinemas, concert halls and theatres
  • Visitor attractions (such as heritage sites or museums)
  • Gyms and leisure centres
  • Dentists or opticians, but NHS guidance states that face coverings should be worn in hospitals.

5. What happens if I don’t?

Shops and supermarkets will be expected to encourage compliance with the law and can refuse entry. If necessary, the police have the powers to enforce these measures, including through issuing a fine of £100 (halving to £50 if paid within 14 days).

In transport hubs, operators will be expected to remind passengers of the law and if necessary ask people to leave a transport hub if they are not wearing a face covering. Police and British Transport Police on the rail network, will again be able to enforce fines or remove people from services. Transport for London will have the same enforcement and prosecution powers in TfL transport hubs as they currently have in TfL carriages.

The regulations are covered under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984.

6. Should shop staff be wearing face coverings?

It is not compulsory for shop or supermarket staff to wear face coverings, but the government strongly recommends that employers consider their use where appropriate and where other mitigations are not in place.

For example, there will be times when screens or visors are in use, or when a staff member is not in close proximity to people they do not normally meet, and so wearing a covering for staff will not be necessary. Employers should continue to follow Covid-19 secure guidelines to reduce the proximity and duration of contact between employees.

7. Are there any other exemptions?

There are some circumstances, for health, age or equality reasons, whereby people are not expected to wear face coverings where it is otherwise required by law. You do not have to if you:

  • young children under the age of 11 (Public Health England do not recommended face coverings for children under the age of 3 for health and safety reasons)
  • not being able to 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 travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others
  • to avoid injury, or to escape a risk of harm, and you do not have a face covering with you
  • to eat or drink if reasonably necessary
  • in order to take medication
  • if a police officer or other official requests you remove your face covering

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

  • If asked to do so in a bank, building society, or post office for identification
  • If asked to do so by shop staff for identification, the purpose of assessing health recommendations, such as a pharmacist, or for identification purposes including when buying age restricted products such as alcohol
  • If speaking with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound. Some may ask you, either verbally or in writing, to remove a covering to help with communication

8. Should I wear a face covering at work?

There is no universal face coverings guidance for workplaces because of the variety of work environments in different industries.

Businesses are already subject to legal obligations to protect their staff under existing employment law. This means taking appropriate steps to provide a safe working environment, which may include face coverings where appropriate, alongside other mitigation such as perspex screens to separate workers from customers.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has provided detailed guidance for specific workplace settings. Employers must make sure that the risk assessment for their business addresses the risks of Covid-19 using BEIS guidance to inform decisions and control measures including close proximity working.

The government advises a hierarchy or system of control at work, including social distancing, high standards of hand hygiene, increased surface cleaning, fixed teams or partnering, and other measures such as using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.

It notes that there are some circumstances when wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial and a precautionary measure to protect others. If employees choose to wear a face covering, normal policies relating to occupational workwear and PPE will continue to apply.

Masks can be disposable or reusable
Masks can be disposable or reusable

9. Is there a standard for face coverings?

Many retailers online and in store are selling face coverings. Details of a product’s conformance to any standards can be found under the product details section online, or on the packaging or label of the covering itself. The Office for Product and Safety Standards (OPSS) guidance for manufacturers and sellers of face coverings can be found online.

There are currently no UK product standards for face coverings due to the complexity of the different contexts in which Covid-19 can spread, and the rapidly changing and growing evidence base on the effectiveness of face masks and coverings.

There have been some publications on them, however. AFNOR, the French national organisation for standardisation, published a French specification for “barrier masks” intended for both mask manufacturers and the public in March 2020, which has been approved by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and is due to be adopted by the British Standards Institute.

And in June 2020, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) released a specification for textile barrier face coverings designed for both disposable and reusable coverings, but it does not include tests for filtration efficiency, which are incorporated under the CEN and AFNOR guidelines.

10. Can I make my own face covering?

Yes, and instructions are widely available online, such as on the Big Community Sew website. The government has not endorsed any particular method but advises wearers to consider materials and fabrics that may irritate different skin types.

Emerging evidence suggests that the risk of transmission may be reduced by using thicker fabrics or multiple layers. However, the face covering should still be breathable.

Children should make face coverings under the supervision of an adult and face coverings for children should be secured to the head using ear loops only.

11. How do I look after and dispose of my face covering?

Do not touch the front of the face covering, or the part of the face covering that has been in contact with your mouth and nose.

Once removed, store reusable face coverings in a plastic bag until you have an opportunity to wash them. If the face covering is single use, dispose of it in a residual waste bin. Do not put them in a recycling bin.

Make sure you clean any surfaces the face covering has touched using normal household cleaning products. If eating in a restaurant, for example, it is important that you do not place the face covering on the table.

Wash your face covering regularly and follow the washing instructions for the fabric. You can use your normal detergent. You can wash and dry it with other laundry. You must throw away your face covering if it is damaged.

The government has also published guidance on the safe disposing of waste for the public and businesses.

Adapted from advice on gov.uk

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