When can we stop wearing face coverings in the UK?

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  • Following an update to the lockdown roadmap in early July, the government have confirmed the date when we can stop wearing face coverings in the UK by law. 

    Face coverings have been mandatory across the UK since the beginning of the pandemic. At many points, even those attending school and other educational establishments have had to wear a face covering in the classroom. Whilst face mask rules on trains and other public transport have often led to significant fines for those not following the law.

    But even as cases of the new Delta variant rise with lifting restrictions and there are discussions over a potential circuit breaker lockdown in the future, the end to mandatory face coverings in public spaces is here.

    When can we stop wearing face masks in England?

    Face masks will no longer be mandatory in many indoor public spaces in England from July 19.

    At a press conference on July 5, Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out the plans for lifting lockdown at the end of the month. One of the restrictions the government will end is the requirement for social distancing. This includes the 1 metre plus rule and compulsory face masks.

    “We will end the 1 metre plus rule on social distancing, and the legal obligation to wear a face covering,” he said. But he went onto stress that there are some circumstances where people should continue to wear one.

    “Although guidance will suggest where you might choose to do so, especially when cases are rising, and where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet in enclosed places, such as obviously crowded public transport.”

    Later on he clarified this by saying that it will “depend on the circumstances”. He said, “Clearly there’s a big difference between travelling on a crowded Tube train and sitting late at night in a virtually empty carriage on a main railway line.”

    “We want people to exercise their personal responsibility. But remember the value of face coverings both in protecting themselves and others.”

    However, Transport for London have now confirmed that anyone wishing to use the public transport services in the city will be required to wear a face mask as a condition of travel. Various businesses, including the bookshop Waterstones, have also stressed they want customers to wear a face mask in their shops.

    Professor Chris Witty, England’s chief medical officer, said that there were three key situations where he would have “no hesitation in continuing to wear a mask”.

    These included:

    • Any situation indoors where it’s crowded or indoors with a close proximity to other people.
    • If it was required by “any competent authority”.
    • And if “someone else was uncomfortable if I did not wear a mask, as a point of common courtesy”.
    The government have emphasised the need to turn “the basic tools that we have used to control human behaviour”, such as making face masks compulsory in all indoor spaces, into allowing people to “make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus”.

    Naturally, although the country has some of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in Europe, there are still many people in England who are at risk from the virus. This includes people with certain medical conditions, including blood cancer, because the vaccine doesn’t work as well. It also includes younger people, particularly those under 40, as many haven’t been given the opportunity to have their second vaccination yet.

    People getting onto the tube at Oxford Circus in London wearing face coverings

    Credit: Getty

    Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, added at the press conference on July 5, “Masks are most effective at preventing somebody else catching the disease from you. They have some effect to prevent you catching it as well.

    “The situation you’re most likely to catch COVID in is indoors, crowded spaces. So that’s the obvious place where mask wearing becomes an advantage.”

    The government haven’t confirmed whether the UK will definitely go back into lockdown in the future if cases of coronavirus continue to surge. However if they do, it’s likely that face coverings will be mandatory in many public spaces again.

    How much longer should we wear face masks?

    The legal requirement to wear a face mask indoors will end on July 19, the government have confirmed. However, they have also said that the “pandemic is far from over and it will certainly not be over by 19th”.

    Both medical and scientific experts have stressed the need to continue wearing face coverings, possibly for the considerable future in some cases.

    The British Medical Association‘s council chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, has previously said that easing restrictions shouldn’t be an “all or nothing” approach. Instead, “sensible” and “cautious” measures should be enforced to minimise the impact of new variants and more waves of the virus.

    He said, “As case numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate due to the rapid transmission of the Delta variant and an increase in people mixing with one another, it makes no sense to remove restrictions in their entirety in just over two weeks’ time.

    “The promise was to make decisions based on data and not dates, and while we were pleased to see the government react to data in delaying the easing on 21 June last month, ministers must not now simply disregard the most recent, damning, numbers by rushing into meeting their new 19 July deadline.”

    Dr Nagpaul called for “targeted measures” to help prevent the spread of the virus ahead of the lockdown roadmap ending. These included: face masks in public areas such as shops and public transport, and better public messaging about the importance of social distancing and ventilation.

    “Everyone appreciates the efforts and sacrifices we have all made so far to suppress the spread of the virus, and it would be tragic if we were to undo this good work now,” he added.

    Sign telling people they need to wear a face mask on public transport in England or risk a fine

    Credit: Getty

    While the number of people currently being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 is relatively low compared to how quickly the cases are rising, Dr Nagpaul said, “Even if people aren’t getting admitted to hospital at the same rate, spiralling levels of community transmission provides a fertile ground for new, potentially vaccine-resistant variants to develop.”

    So while wearing a face mask indoors will no longer be a legal requirement in England from this late July date, there are many cases where most people will continue to wear one.

    When can you stop wearing face masks in Scotland?

    Much like England, Scotland is planning to move into the lowest level of coronavirus restrictions from July 19. All being well, the country will lift any remaining restrictions on August 9.

    But while many of the rules on social distancing are likely to end, the Scottish government have previously said that even after the restrictions are lifted, there will be an “ongoing need” for face coverings.

    Women in face masks at the hairdressers

    Credit: Getty

    The government have also said that those in Scotland will still have to wear a face covering in particular settings, including on public transport and when they go into a shop.

    A spokesperson has said, “We will take account of social and economic factors as well as the epidemiological impact on transmission and will keep measures under review. As the First Minister has set out, we will have to manage living with Covid-19 for some time to come, even when we are able to move beyond Level 0.

    “There will still be some ongoing need for face coverings, for example on public transport and in retail.”

    In Scotland, there are still limits on how many people can meet indoors and outside. Social distancing measures are still in place, as is the need to wear a face covering.

    In Scotland, over half of the population 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 have not confirmed when people can stop wearing face coverings in Wales.

    The country is in a “very difficult situation” with rising Covid-19 infections, the Welsh health minister has said.

    The government have confirmed that even though restrictions are lifting in England, many remain in Wales.

    Restrictions still in place in Wales include:

    • Only 6 people can meet indoors in private homes and holiday accommodation.
    • Only 1000 people seated or 200 standing can be in an indoor event space, subject to risk assessment.
    • Ice rinks can reopen but some other businesses remain closed.
    • 30 children from organisations such as Brownies or Scouts can visit residential centres.

    Eluned Morgan said Wales would not be rushed into decisions about lifting coronavirus restrictions. She said, “We will have to learn to live with this virus and what I won’t give you is any assurances that this is the end of the road.”

    “We don’t know. There may be a new variant that escapes our vaccines, so I can’t make those kind of predictions.”

    She added that Wales would be “following the data rather than following the politics”.

    When can we stop wearing face coverings in Northern Ireland?

    There are no plans to scrap the requirement to wear a face covering in Northern Ireland.

    Following a statement from housing secretary Robert Jenrick, the health minister for NI spoke to Good Morning Ulster. He said that he wouldn’t “advocate” for the idea of face masks becoming optional in the coming weeks.

    Robin Swann said, “It wouldn’t be no, look I think we have seen the protections that have come from the wearing of face masks in certain areas. It is something that the Executive keeps under continual review.

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

    Credit: Getty

    “One of the concerns that we have and has been expressed in regards to the Delta variant which is with us at this minute at time, is that transmissibility. We do know that face coverings are one of the main protections against that and the main fight that we use as regards to all those other steps including our vaccine programme.”

    He added that the recent rise in cases was a “serious concern” as well.

    “We have now the R mostly in the younger age groups, and that’s why there’s a real concerted effort about getting our vaccine programme to actually increase in regards to those specific age groups. Over this weekend we’ve seen various outreach clinics going out and about the country, actually taking Covid vaccines to the population.”

    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 will continue wearing them by choice.

    Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi is preparing to deliver third doses of the vaccine to the most vulnerable in autumn this year. This is ahead of a predicted winter spike of Covid-19. 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, the rest of the world won’t be in the same situation. This means that international travel in the future may stay restricted in some way. This could include the mandatory wearing of face masks.

    Woman getting on public transport wearing a face mask

    Credit: Getty

    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 then again later at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

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

    Following a change in the rules on July 19, face masks are no longer compulsory in many spaces in England. The rules differ in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however.

    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 advised that you still wear a face covering in the following spaces even after July 19:

    • 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 should 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 not mandatory in England anymore, some businesses and organisations still require people to wear one as a condition of travel or entry. But exemptions still apply, they 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. This is often 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 clear sound or facial expressions.
    • To avoid harm or injury to yourself or others. This includes when 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

    The government have updated this list of exemptions throughout the last year as more information on masks, social distancing and hygiene measures has come to light. 

    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. This is because 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.

    Why should I 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 have the infection and wear a mask, they can’t expel any droplets of infection from their respiratory system. This means they can’t transmit the virus onto people, surfaces or into the air when breathing or speaking.

    There has been many examples of people who wore a mask and did not transmit the virus. 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 confirmed that because the “patient went above and beyond all suggested precautions”, 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, many experts believed that masks wouldn’t stop the spread of Covid-19. In fact, they could be detrimental as those who wore them might relax on other measures.

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

    “Masks should be 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 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. They also completely cover your mouth and nose, have a snug fit against the sides of your face. They also 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. This is so they are customisable for their own style and comfortable for their own needs.

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