Compulsory face masks: When do face masks have to be worn in UK shops?

Find out when face masks will become mandatory in shops this month, where to buy one and who is exempt from the new government guidelines.

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Since the middle of May, the public has been advised to wear face masks in all enclosed public spaces – such as shops and pharmacies. However, they have only been made compulsory this month. But when do they need to be worn?

It started with face masks worn on public transport (opens in new tab), a move that brought England into line with other countries like Scotland, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Now, face masks will be made mandatory in shops by the end of the month, following research which suggests that more people are wearing them outside of their homes.

This announcement comes as businesses and other enclosed spaces, such as playgrounds (opens in new tab), were allowed to open this month under strict social distancing guidelines. After almost four months of lockdown (opens in new tab), hairdressers were allowed to reopen on July 4, followed by nail bars, beauty salons and spas on July 13. Gyms and swimming pools are also due to open later this month on July 25.

The prime minister himself wore a mask in public for the first time last week and yesterday, he urged the public to wear their face masks in shops (opens in new tab) as “extra insurance” against coronavirus. He said, on a visit to the London Ambulance Service, “The scientific evidence of face coverings, and the importance of stopping aerosol droplets; that’s been growing. So I do think that in shops it is very important to wear a face covering.”

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Boris Johnson’s statement is supported by the ever-growing research (opens in new tab) around the issue. Much of it, with the World Health Organisation leading the way, suggests that as the main way of coronavirus transmission is via small droplets from the nose and mouth. So one of the best ways to reduce the transmission is by wearing a mask covering those areas, among other measures like hand washing and maintaining physical distance.

So when will face masks become mandatory in the UK? This is everything you need to know about the new rules coming into effect this month.

When will face masks become compulsory in England?

Following the example of Scotland, who made wearing face masks mandatory in shops from July 10, face masks or coverings will be compulsory in England from July 24. The news comes after an increase in the number of people wearing face masks was reported across the UK, with more than half of adults saying that in the first week of July, they used a face covering outside of their home.

But the announcement by the prime minister that face coverings will be compulsory in all shops on July 24 has led to criticism of the government, however, with Labour ministers calling the approach “slow and muddled” and questioning the delay to the end of the month on making the coverings mandatory.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that wearing a mask would "give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops".

Those who refuse to wear a face mask in shops could face a fine of £100. This will be reduced to £50 if you pay within 14 days. In Scotland, anyone found not wearing a mask in shops will be fined £60, which will be reduced to £30 if paid within 28 days.

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However, shop keepers won't have legal powers to reject someone from the shop if they refuse to wear a mask, they can only ask them not to come in and ask them to leave. Two police forces have also confirmed that they won't be tightening the rules themselves, suggesting that it will be down to the public to ensure they are wearing face masks in shops.

Police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, said in a statement that police officers are slowly returning to normal policing with regular numbers of officers at work. She added, "But the expectation is that they will only come if there is disorder or violence or something associated with it, they are not going to come to every phone call that someone is not wearing a mask."

While Detective chief superintendent, Stephen Clayman, who is in charge of the police force in Barking and Dagenham, Havering and Redbridge, said that enforcing masks in shops and supermarkets is not a priority for the force, but they 'will deal with it' when necessary.

Speaking to the Barking and Dagenham Post, he explained, ‘We will deal with it exactly the same way, I suspect, as we did with the other Covid rules – around encouraging and explaining. The fine is the last thing we do if we have to. ‘I can’t see us being any different because this is for people’s wellbeing ultimately. This is to help them and about protecting other people. But I don’t envisage we will be patrolling the aisles of Tesco.’

Who is exempt from wearing face masks in the UK?

compulsory face masks England

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Although it will be mandatory for those living in England to wear a face mask in shops from July 24, there are some people who will be exempt from the rules. The full list of those who are exempt has not been published by the government yet, but it is thought that it will be similar to the exemptions allowed on public transport.

Those who don't have to wear a mask while travelling on public transport include:

  • People who have certain disabilities, such as not being able to put a mask on or take it off.
  • People who would find putting on a mask severely distressing.
  • People who would have difficulty breathing under a mask.
  • Those under 11 years of age.
  • Anyone travelling with someone who requires lip reading also does not have to wear a mask.
  • If you are using public transport to escape danger, you also don't have to wear a mask. has designed a range of cards (opens in new tab) for those exempt from wearing a mask to carry with them on public transport, and it is thought that the same cards could be used in shops.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said, “It is about managing overall risk…Any type of covering will be sufficient for this purpose.”

In Scotland, those exempt also include people with certain medical conditions and disabilities, as well as children under five.

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Matt Hancock said upon announcing the news that masks would become compulsory in shops , "Sadly, sales assistants, cashiers and security guards have suffered disproportionately in this crisis.

"The death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75% higher amongst men and 60% higher amongst women than in the general population."

He added, "There is also evidence that face coverings increase confidence in people to shop."

Despite this, under the new ruling, retail staff will not be required to wear masks while working.

Do shop workers have to wear a face mask?

The other people exempt from wearing face masks include those working in the shops or supermarkets. Environment Secretary George Eustice told the BBC, "They’re [shop workers] not being covered by this but I think if you go into most shops you will see that staff for a longer time now have either been wearing face shields or face masks.

“It won’t be a compulsory requirement because it won’t always be right for every setting in a retail environment, particularly those working behind the tills and so on.”

The rule, as described by Matt Hancock to MPs on July 14, is needed to protect the shop workers who have been especially vulnerable to the virus throughout the pandemic and have a higher death rate than the rest of the population.

He said, "The death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75 per cent higher amongst men and 60 per cent higher amongst women than in the general population. So as we restore shopping, we must keep our shopkeepers safe."

Do you need to wear a medical grade face mask?

While some people might feel safer wearing a medical grade face mask, otherwise known as a surgical mask, it's not a requirement under the new guidelines. According to the World Health Organisation (opens in new tab) (WHO), there are only certain people who need to wear a medical grade face mask. These are...

  • Health care workers on duty.
  • People who have COVID-19 symptoms or suspect they have symptoms.
  • People over the age of 60 or those with underlying health conditions, if they are in a public space where social distancing cannot be achieved.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that medical face masks are 'surgical or procedure masks that are flat or pleated; they are affixed to the head with straps that go around the ears or head or both.'

The best places to buy medical grade face masks - normally coming in packs of 30 to 50 - include Boots (opens in new tab), Amazon (opens in new tab) and local pharmacies.

Everyone else - such as those with no symptoms, retail and hospitality staff and social workers - is encouraged to wear fabric masks, otherwise known as face coverings when they will become compulsory at the end of the month. WHO suggest that these are worn in places where social distancing is limited, such as on public transport, workplaces and supermarkets.