Face coverings: an overview

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SPICe has received numerous questions in relation to situations where face coverings must be worn, and when exemptions apply. This blog will look at the current Scottish Government guidance on the issue, as well as some of the evidence put forward by the World Health Organisation in favour of face coverings.   

When is it a legal requirement to wear a face covering?

According to the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Requirements) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 it is a legal requirement in Scotland to wear a face covering in public indoor spaces. These are places where people from different households mix, such as restaurants, cafes, pubs, public transport shops and work places.

The law defines a face covering as:

 “[…] a covering of any type (other than a face shield) which covers a person’s nose and mouth.”

The Scottish Government’s guidance on face coverings recommends face coverings be worn in crowded spaces outdoors, and in outdoor spaces where it is hard to socially distance, for example at the school gate, or at the entrance to a building. However, this is not a legal requirement.

Who is exempt?

The law exempts people with certain health conditions and disabilities from wearing a face covering. This includes hidden disabilities such as autism, dementia and learning disabilities. The Scottish Government guidance includes a non-exhaustive list of exemptions.

An individual has no duty to prove they are exempt, but there is an option to request a free face covering exemption card by phoning 0800 121 6240 or through the Face Covering Exemption Card Service website.

Reasonable excuses

It is permissible to temporarily remove a face covering when there is a ‘reasonable excuse’ for doing so. Common examples listed in the guidance include: when eating, drinking or during exercise.

Different circumstances call for slight variations in the regulations. For this reason, specific guidance often exists for different sectors.

So, visitors to a hospitality venue such as a restaurant or pub must wear a face covering when moving around the venue but can remove it when seated. A face covering is not required on the dancefloor of a hospitality venue. Guidance for hospitality, including rules for face coverings, is available from the Scottish Government: guidance for the hospitality and tourism sector.

Face coverings are not required during the duration of a physical activity or sport. A sport coach struggling to be heard, for example by the pool-side, is not required to wear a face covering. Guidance for sport, including rules for face coverings, is available from Sport Scotland: Latest sport and physical activity guidance (sportscotland.org.uk).

Rules for children

Children under the age of 12 are exempt from wearing a face covering. The reason given by the Scottish Government guidance is that children under the age of 12 are less likely to develop serious illness or spread the virus further. 

Face coverings for babies and toddlers carry serious risks such as overheating and strangulation and are hence not recommended.

Although children over the age of 12 should follow the same rules on face coverings as adults, the Scottish Government guidance states that:

“[…] parents, carers and other relevant adults are able to use individual discretion to determine whether the child or young person (aged between 12 and 17 years) can or cannot tolerate wearing a face covering appropriately.”

The Scottish Government has developed specific guidance for schools and nurseries which includes details on face coverings in these settings. 

What scientific evidence is there to support the use of face coverings?

The Scottish Government guidance refers to the scientific evidence presented in the World Health Organisation’s interim guidance Mask use in the context of COVID-19. This recommends that:

“[…] the general public should wear a non-medical mask in indoors […] or outdoor settings where physical distancing of at least 1 metre cannot be maintained.” ­

Under Scientific evidence, the WHO explains how COVID-19 is transmitted from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles, for example when coughing, sneezing, singing or talking. The virus is usually spread through close contact between people, usually at a distance less than one metre. It can be inhaled through the mouth, nose, or enter the body via the eyes and in certain settings the risk of infection can be amplified:

“[…] particularly in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, where infected persons spend long periods of time with others. Studies have suggested these can include restaurants, choir practices, fitness classes, nightclubs, offices and places of worship.”

The WHO advises that wearing a non-medical mask can protect the wearer from catching the virus from an infected person, as well as prevent the infected person from spreading the virus. However, wearing of a mask alone is not sufficient to prevent transmission, and there is reason to think that the virus can transmit through contaminated objects as well as airborne droplets. Therefore, the WHO recommends further measures to limit the spread, such as:

  • good hand hygiene
  • physical distancing
  • ventilation of indoor spaces
  • testing
  • contact tracing and quarantine

Penalty for not wearing a face covering when required

The law states that refusal to wear a face covering when required and no exemptions apply can result in a fixed penalty notice of £60 (£30 if paid within 28 days). Repeated offences will lead to doubling of the previous fine to a maximum amount of £960.

The law can be enforced by a police officer or a ‘relevant person’ who has been designated by the local authority. The Scottish Government guidance says:

“[…] the person issuing the penalty must reasonably believe that it is necessary and proportionate to do so in order to prevent the individual from continuing to contravene the face coverings regulations.”

Lena Phalen, Enquiries Assistant

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