When can we stop wearing face coverings in the UK?

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  • The day when we can stop wearing face coverings in public indoor spaces is going to be a welcome one, as it will be a sure sign that other Covid-19 protections are working in the UK. 

    Already there is some hope on the horizon, as children have been told they don’t have to wear face masks at school from May 17 when the next stage of restrictions lift. A relaxation of other social distancing restrictions is also on the cards for the same date, with hugging to be allowed again and more people allowed to mix indoors and outdoors.  

    But when can we stop wearing face coverings and masks in day-to-day life? This is what the experts have said so far.

    When can we stop wearing face masks in England?

    Despite the lockdown roadmap indicating that all social restrictions will lift from June 21 in England, it’s not currently known exactly when we can stop wearing face coverings in the UK.  Health Secretary Matt Hancock did say, however, that the government was considering changing the rules on face masks from next month. Speaking to Sky News, he said that ministers hadn’t completely “ruled that out”. 

    “We will be changing the rules to be far more about people taking personal responsibility, exercising common sense according to their circumstances.” 

    “We will set out really clearly the risks. People understand the risks – we know that – and we’ll make that very, very plain and then people can exercise their own personal responsibility.”

    Man wearing a face mask looking down at his phone on a train platform

    Credit: Getty

    “Grandparents, sometimes for the first time in over a year, will be able to be close to their grandchildren, but taking into account the individual risk of catching this disease which differs according to circumstances,” he added. 

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that decisions to lift social distancing requirements of all kinds would be made following a review. 

    “Our journey back towards normality will be subject to resolving a number of key questions and to do this we will conduct four reviews.” He said, “One will assess how long we need to maintain social distancing and face masks.

    “This will also inform guidance on working from home – which should continue wherever possible until this review is complete.”

    The other reviews concern the resumption of international travel when lockdown is over, including the recently-announced ‘green list’ of countries, whether Covid-status certification (so-called vaccine passports) will be used to reopen larger venues, and how major events can return in the future. 

    How much longer will we have to wear face masks?

    While the advice from the government is unclear, epidemiologists and medical experts have weighed in on when we can stop wearing face coverings.

    woman clothes shopping as rules on When can we stop wearing face coverings in the UK are announced

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    Professor Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group and the chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial, remained optimistic about the coming months as he said that the end of face coverings is “getting closer to happening”. 

    However, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has urged caution on ditching face masks too quickly. 

    “It’s more likely to be that we wear masks in certain places, that we are continuing with hand washing, making sure that we are sensible about the way in which we interact with people in indoor environments.

    “I would be very surprised if we go in year-on-year with needing to do more things than that.

    “But this coming winter, I think we need to wait and see how far we get on with the current reduction in numbers that needs to occur.” 

    Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, also recently told BBC News that people might need to wear face coverings and socially distance for several years until we fully return to normality. 

    Man and woman working in an office wearing blue disposable face masks

    Credit: Getty

    She said that “people have got used to those lower-level restrictions now, and people can live with them, and the economy can still go on with those less severe restrictions in place.”

    “So I think certainly for a few years, at least until other parts of the world are as well vaccinated as we are, and the numbers have come down everywhere, that is when we may be able to go very gradually back to a more normal situation,” she said. 

    When can you stop wearing face masks in Scotland?

    There is currently no word from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about when people can stop wearing face masks in Scotland. 

    She said recently that measures on hygiene, the use of face coverings and social distancing could stay in place even when lockdown is lifted completely. 

    “The worst thing we can do right now, and we can say this not just from theory but partly from our experience last year, is get all of this progress, hard won on the part of all of us, and then let up too quickly so it all runs out of control again and we are back to square one.” 

    Women in face masks at the hairdressers

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    In Scotland, over 1.5 million people have received their second dose of either the Pfizer, Oxford or Moderna vaccines and are fully inoculated. 

    When can we stop wearing face masks in Wales?

    The Welsh government is keeping the issue under review, according to First Minister Mark Drakeford. Speaking recently about lifting the restrictions on face masks, he said, “We may be able to mitigate some of the measures that we are all taking” to reduce the infection rate. 

    But he added, “I think that the population in Wales, which has stuck so carefully to the rules and done so much to protect one another, they will want to go on playing their part, rather than thinking we can act as though coronavirus has gone away.” 

    It comes as almost 2 million people in Wales have now received their first dose of the vaccine. This number includes people in their 30s, of which 53% have had their first dose. 

    When can we stop wearing face coverings in Northern Ireland?

    It’s not known when the government in Northern Ireland will scrap the requirement for people to wear face masks. But First Minister Arlene Foster said that she was “pleased and proud” that the “collective efforts” of the country had reached a point where they had “established a good level of control over the virus.” 

    The First Minister added, “We are now entering brighter and better times.” 

    Woman wearing blue disposable face mask as she puts bags into boot of the car

    Credit: Getty

    From May 24 in Northern Ireland, people will be able to sit inside at a pub or restaurant in a group of six or up to two households. Visitor attractions and exercise classes will also be allowed again, similar to in England. 

    Are face masks here to stay?

    There are various theories as to whether we’ll ditch face masks for good. We might need them in the future to fight other infections – but also some people may continue wearing them by choice.

    Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi is reportedly preparing to deliver third doses of the vaccine to the most vulnerable in autumn this year, ahead of predicted winter spike of Covid-19 this year. This, and the possibility of new, more transmissible variants that could possibly evade the vaccines mean that wearing face masks could become a standard practice in the UK.

    When the UK is fully vaccinated and lockdown entirely lifts in the country, the rest of the world probably won’t be in the same situation. This means that international travel in the future may stay restricted in some way, including the mandatory wearing of face masks, as all countries lift their vaccination rates and target the virus over the next year.

    But even if a day comes when the world is largely rid of the virus and the government announces that face coverings are no longer compulsory in indoor public settings, people may choose to continue wearing one as public awareness of how infections spread has become so heightened.

    Woman getting on public transport wearing a face mask

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    In China, for instance, masks tend to be worn in winter when colds are common and pollution levels are high. It follows a 100-year old practice of wearing masks in the country, as the first instance of widespread mask-wearing was reported in 1910 following the pneumonic plague epidemic. Most people wore them again routinely during the SARS outbreak of 2002 and later at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

    What are the current rules on face masks in the UK?

    According to government guidance, put in place last year at the beginning of the pandemic, “You should wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people outside your household or support bubble.”

    It’s necessary to wear a face covering in all of the following places, unless you are exempt from doing so:

    • Public transportation, including aeroplanes 
    • Taxis and private hire vehicles
    • Public transport hubs, such as train stations
    • All shops and supermarkets 
    • Indoor shopping centres
    • Hospitality venues, including bars and pubs, except when seated at the table to eat or drink
    • Estate agents and letting agents
    • All entertainment venues, including theatres, cinemas, zoos and concert halls
    • Personal care premises, including hair salons and tattoo parlours 
    • Libraries and public reading rooms
    • Places of worship
    • Schools and other educational establishments
    • Premises providing medical or veterinary services
    • Community centres, youth and social clubs
    • Funeral service providers, including funeral homes 
    • Conference centres and exhibition halls
    • Public indoor spaces in hotels and hostels

    Essentially, you must wear a face covering in any indoor public space where the two-metre social distance can’t be maintained. 

    Who is exempt from wearing a face mask?

    Although face masks are mandatory across the UK, there are some people who are exempt from wearing one. These include: 

    • Children under 11 years old, as this is against advice from both the WHO and Public Health England.
    • People who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability 
    • When 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

    This list of exemptions has been updated throughout the last year as more information on the value of masks, social distancing and increased hygiene measures as a set of protective measures has been uncovered. 

    Face masks and face coverings: know the difference

    There is a difference between the words ‘face mask’ and ‘face covering’. The latter is the one the government has opted for as a must-have for the general public, since it’s effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19 by the wearer.

    It’s simply something that covers your mouth and nose. This could be a scarf, a cloth face mask, a handmade face mask, or a piece of cloth.

    A face mask is a surgical-grade mask that’s only required for medical staff, other care workers and people who are actually sick.

    Why do I have to wear a face mask?

    Mask-wearing has been proven time and time again to be an effective way of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

     

    The face mask or covering acts as a barrier between the wearer’s nose and mouth and the space around them. If they are infected with Covid-19 and wearing a mask, they can’t expel any droplets of infection from their respiratory system onto other people, surfaces or into the air when breathing or speaking.

    There has been multiple examples over the last year of people who have worn a mask and not passed on the infection where they otherwise would have. One of the first was the case of a woman in Canada who visited her parents in Wuhan over 2019’s Christmas break. On her return, she wore a mask and self-isolated. When she started showing symptoms, the woman turned up at the hospital wearing a face mask. The hospital later confirmed that due to how the “patient went above and beyond all suggested precautions” at the time, she did not infect anyone else.

    Over the last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has changed their advice as research on the importance of wearing masks has grown. At the very beginning of the pandemic, it was largely believed that masks wouldn’t really help stop the spread of Covid-19 and in fact, they could be detrimental as those who wore them might relax on other measures to prevent the spread, such as hand-washing.

    This advice has completely changed and now WHO urges mask-wearing as a standard part of seeing people whi you don’t live with. “Masks are a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives,” guidance on the website reads.

    “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive ‘Do it all!’approach including physical distancing, avoiding crowded, closed and close-contact settings, good ventilation, cleaning hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and more.

    “Depending on the type, masks can be used for either protection of healthy persons or to prevent onward transmission.”

    Three people working in an office with face masks

    Credit: Getty

    Where to buy a mask online

    Many local high-street stores sell masks or face coverings. These include…

    Face masks are also available to buy online from marketplaces such as Amazon.

    Effective masks have at least two layers of fabric, completely cover your mouth and nose, have a snug fit against the sides of your face, and have a nose wire or piece of elastic to prevent hair escaping from the top of the mask.

    
How to make a face mask

    However, it’s also possible to make a face mask using simple fabric and everyday materials. To find out how to make your own face mask at home without the need for any sewing, follow our handy online tutorial.

    Throughout the pandemic, many people have decided to make their own face masks so they are customisable for their own style and comfortable for their own needs.