What are the New Rules on the Wearing of Face Coverings?

woman wearing a face covering

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK, there has been conflicting advice and considerable confusion amongst employers and members of the public regarding when, where and why face coverings or face masks should be worn. In this blog, we’ll take a look at the latest guidance from the government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) on when face coverings, surgical masks and FFP3 masks (those designed to filter out dust) should be worn.

New Guidance on the Wearing of Face Coverings

From 24 July, it will be compulsory for members of the public to wear a face-covering in shops and supermarkets in England.  Shopworkers are not required to wear a face covering (although the guidelines “strongly recommend” that they do), nor are members of the public entering places where it would be impractical to cover their faces, such as pubs, cafes and restaurants, which people visit to eat and drink. It has been a legal requirement for people to wear face coverings on public transport since 15 June. Transport operators are entitled to deny anyone without an appropriate face covering from using the service or to insist that they do so.

Children younger than 11-years of age and those with specific disabilities are exempt from the new requirement but anyone who does not fall into the government’s categories of exemption could face a fine of up to £100 for non-compliance. They may also be refused entry to the shop. Police have been afforded the powers necessary to enforce these rules and sanctions for non-compliance.

In addition to the legislation making face coverings mandatory in shops, supermarkets and on public transport, government guidelines “strongly encourage” people to wear them in any enclosed public space where social distancing may be problematic or where encounters with strangers are likely. The rules for wearing face coverings are different in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Be sure to check the government website for location-specific legislation.

What about their use in the Workplace

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) provides detailed, workplace-specific guidance to help employers ensure they are fully compliant and to keep their staff and customers safe. These guides break down the government advice into 14 different categories, including advice for offices, factories, construction, the performing arts, people’s homes and more. Employers must use the information relevant to their type of business to conduct or update a COVID-19 risk assessment.

For most places of business, guidance will include recommendations to implement social distancing where possible and to implement a routine of thorough cleaning to maintain standards of hygiene and reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Where face masks are worn, normal policies relating to occupational workwear and PPE will apply.

Which Types of Face Mask is Right for You?

The new mandatory guidance deliberately refers to the wearing of “face coverings” rather than “face masks.  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) describes “face coverings” as those intended to protect others, not the wearer – “I protect you, you protect me”. Face coverings do not fall within the category of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and there are countless articles explaining how to create a homemade face covering. Face coverings are typically not made to any recognised standard and will not protect workers from other hazards, such as dust and spray.

photo of a fabric face covering


Surgical face masks are designed to limit the spread of infection in medical settings. Surgical face masks are manufactured to a recognised standard and are resistant to droplets of fluids and splashes.

picture of a surgical mask


FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 masks are classified as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and are specifically designed to filter out dust particles. They are typically worn by employees in industries and other settings where dust presents a health hazard. All dust masks used to protect workers in the UK are CE marked. FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 indicates the level of protection afforded by the mask, with FFP3 providing the highest level of protection.

photo of a FFP3 masks

Are Face Coverings Effective in Reducing the Spread of COVID-19?

The current evidence shows that COVID-19 is typically transmitted via respiratory droplets, which can be passed between people within one-metre of each other (through coughing, sneezing etc.). According to the WHO, most transmission of COVID-19 occurs between people via respiratory droplets and contact routes. Droplet transmission occurs when a person is in close contact (within 1 metre) with an infected person and exposure to potentially infective respiratory droplets occurs, for example, through coughing, sneezing or very close personal contact.

The government guideline for health workers providing direct care to COVID-19 patients is that a fluid resistant surgical mask is worn. If health workers are performing Aerosol Generating  Procedures (AGPs), such as non-invasive ventilation and resuscitation, the use of respirators, such as FFP3 respirator/mask is worn.

In the case of the general public, there is little evidence to support the benefits of mass wearing of face coverings by healthy individuals. However, the best scientific evidence suggests that when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others.

Remember wearing a face covering is intended to protect others, not the wearer from coronavirus and therefore it is not a replacement for social distancing measures and washing of hands.

The research into the transmission of coronavirus is new and growing. While the evidence supporting the effectiveness of homemade face coverings worn by the general public is limited, both the government and health organisations, such as the WHO, appear to be erring on the side of caution.

How can we help?

Howlett Health and Safety Services has been advising businesses on safe, legally compliant workplace practices for over ten years. Founder Ray Howlett has over 30 years’ experience in the industry. Book a free 15-minute consultation to find out how we can help keep your business compliant and your people safe in these uncertain times.

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