New rules on face coverings in England: what you need to know

5th June 2020

From 15th June 2020, all passengers on public transport in England will be required to wear face coverings to help prevent any further spread of COVID-19. The government has already recommended the wearing of face coverings in “enclosed public spaces” like shops and public transport when social distancing is not possible.1  Under the new rules, those refusing to wear face masks may be subject to fines, although some exemptions are given. Since the start of this pandemic, there has been much conflicting, confusing, and misleading information regarding the wearing of face coverings. These new rules coincide with further easing of lockdown restrictions, as more non-essential businesses are set to open, and some secondary school pupils will return to class. As more people begin to use public transport again and prepare to return to work, it is important to be aware of these new rules and consider the efficacy of face coverings.

What are the new rules?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the new measures on Thursday 4th June at the daily Downing Street press conference, saying that the aim is to prevent a dangerous second wave of infections in England as the country enters the next phase of lockdown relaxation. Mr Shapps explained that wearing a face mask or covering will be a “condition of travel” meaning that passengers could be refused entry onto vehicles and may be subjected to fines for non-compliance.2  This will apply to all forms of public transport: buses, trains, aircraft, and ferries. However, although the Department for Transport has not yet released a comprehensive list, some travellers will be exempt from the rule. So far, Mr Shapps has said young children, disabled people, and those with respiratory difficulties will not have to wear any coverings.3  Despite current guidance advising the use of face coverings in enclosed spaces, the new rules will solely apply to public transport and will not be enforced in shops or other spaces.4

These new rules only apply to England so far, but the government plans to work with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales to create a unified system across the UK.5 Currently, both Scotland and Northern Ireland advise people to wear a face-covering in places where social distancing is more difficult, while in Wales it is a personal decision to wear one in any circumstance.6  First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, is reportedly considering making the measure mandatory as anecdotal evidence suggests that many people in Scotland have not been following the government’s recommendations.7

Passengers are allowed to use any sort of face covering, not just specifically purposed face masks. Guidelines suggest that homemade masks made from T-shirt sleeves or other fabric, or simply tying a scarf or bandana, are just as acceptable as other masks so long as they fully cover the nose and mouth and are properly secured. There are plenty of online sources that provide guidance on how to make a mask or covering at home, such as this guide from the BBC. Coverings can also be purchased online from a number of independent retailers. The government has stressed that face coverings are different from clinical PPE, namely surgical masks, or respirators, which should be reserved for the workers who need them to avoid supply issues.8

How effective are face-coverings?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently advises that only people who are sick and symptomatic, or those caring for someone with COVID-19, should wear face coverings.9  The BBC explains that this is because masks can become contaminated when putting them on or removing them. It has been pointed out that continued social distancing and hygiene will be more effective, with a mask potentially giving people a “false sense of security”, leading them to be more complacent about other mandatory rules and advice.10  Whilst scientists continue to argue over the use of face coverings in managing the spread of COVID-19, a multidiscipline group convened by the Royal Society called Delve- Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics, suggests that the onward transmission of COVID-19 by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic wearers for face coverings, if widely used in situations where physical distancing is not possible, can contribute to reducing viral transition to others.  However, these claims continue to be discounted due to the seeming lack of real-world data in the studies undertaken.11

As scientists continue to argue over the effectiveness of face coverings in the prevention of COVID-19 transmission, they do seem to have become an accepted means of personal protection within many populaces. However, it seems the need for social distancing and continued hygiene practices remains prominent to reduce viral spread.