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Who needs to wear a face mask or covering and who’s exempt

Home made face masks

Many of us are now being asked to wear face coverings on public transport, in hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries, and now in retail outlets. It’s a physically and socially odd feeling, but that we, and our family members, must get used to if we want to visit a growing number of facilities.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to cover up, and it doesn’t have to mean buying packets and packets of commercially made masks. We’ve got advice here on how to create and wear a face covering, and who might be exempt from doing so.

The latest rules

From the 24th July 2020, people in England will be required to wear a face covering in shops. The rule is already in force in Scotland.

The idea is that wearing masks will help to protect other people in an enclosed space from transmission of Covid-19 from the wearer. Many experts believe that this is a useful way of avoiding spreading the virus from people who may not even be aware that they have it, as they don’t have any symptoms. As with just about everything surrounding the management of the coronavirus, not everyone agrees.

The rules are not the same across the UK. At the time of writing, face coverings are only required on public transport in Northern Ireland. The advice from the Welsh government is that face coverings are not required at the moment, even on public transport, but are advisable.

Guidelines are changing constantly as we move out of lockdown. It’s worth keeping an eye on the news and the above sites to check for latest advice, especially if you’re moving between countries.

The speed of change can be highly confusing for people of every age, especially if they aren’t on the internet or watch the news continually. So making sure older relatives know about latest developments is a really good idea.

The UK goverment updated its advice at the end of July to emphasise that in England there are exemptions to the face covering rules. The list of exemptions includes hidden conditions such as anxiety or panic disorders, autism, breathing difficulties, dementia, reduced vision or if you are with someone who relies on lip reading to communicate. While no one is officially required to prove to others that they are exempt, some are finding themselves being challenged by other members of the public if they’re not wearing a mask. There is a downloadable exemption card that might help in these situation. The exemption cards are available to print or display on mobile phones from gov.uk.

Do we need to buy masks?

No. We can adapt clothing we already have, or if we’re vaguely competent with a sewing machine, we can make our own. If that doesn’t appeal, there are many outlets selling home-made masks, many for charity. Try your local online communities to find out who and where.

There are also commercially made, single-use masks available and there’s been no obvious news of these being in short supply recently. Home delivery firm ParcelHero is reporting that since December it has seen shipments of mask rise by around 275% every month from online retailers. At the same time, local shops and supermarkets are making efforts to ensure they have masks in stock.

That means you have a few options as to how you create face coverings for your older family and friends:

  • Would simply popping on a bought single-use mask be easiest?
  • Are they happier with fabric ties around the head or elastic round the ears? (I’ve heard tell that the elasticated ones can make your hearing aids fall out)
  • Will they be able to follow the removal and washing guidelines for reusable masks?
  • Would wrapping a familiar scarf securely around the nose and mouth be easier?

What does a face covering look like?

The official guidance is that a face covering is ‘something which safely covers the nose or mouth’.

It could be a scarf, bandana, religious covering or hand-made cloth covering. The important aspect is that it must fit round the side of the face.

That means the covering should:

  • cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably
  • fit comfortably but securely against the side of the face
  • be secured to the head with ties or ear loops
  • be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton
  • ideally include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organisation recommends three depending on the fabric used)
  • unless disposable, it should be able to be washed with other items of laundry according to fabric washing instructions and dried without causing the face covering to be damaged

Putting on and taking off the face covering

The recommended procedure for putting on the face covering is to:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on
  • avoid wearing on your neck or forehead
  • avoid touching the part of the face covering in contact with your mouth and nose, as it could be contaminated with the virus
  • change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it

People who wear glasses are having a bit of a problem with the fog factor. Three ways to stop spectacles misting up are:

  • wear the glasses on top of the mask
  • tape a folded tissue to the inside of the top of the mask
  • wash the glasses in washing up liquid (which is a good way to clean them anyway) and this will leave a thin film that will help to stop misting

When you’re ready to remove the face covering, the advice is to:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing
  • only handle the straps, ties or clips
  • do not share with someone else to use
  • if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a residual waste bin and do not recycle
  • if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser once removed

Can we forget about social distancing if we’re wearing a face covering?

The official guidance is no. It’s another useful way to slow the spread of the virus, but it should be used as well as social distancing and hand washing.


There is some debate about the efficacy of face coverings – and the perceived affront to civil liberties. There is no exemption for anyone who doesn’t believe in using coverings on principle though. Theoretically those who refuse to wear a covering without a good reason can be fined.

There are a number of people who don’t have to wear masks for health reasons. These include:

  • not being able to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • if putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress
  • if you are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • to eat or drink, but only if you need to
  • to take medication

It’s also OK to take off your mask if someone who relies on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound asks you to. Additionally, you can remove the mask if asked to by a police officer or similar.

There’s another grey area in how to prove that you’re exempt from wearing a face covering. Some people have downloaded self-certified cards, but this doesn’t seem to really provide evidence. It’s a worrying issue for those who believe they are exempt but are worried about being challenged.

Shop staff aren’t generally expected to wear face coverings as their employers have already put in place numerous ways of limiting contact with customers.

Quite how all this will be policed is yet to be determined. It appears that the onus is going to be put on shop owners and staff to request people use coverings.

Making your own masks

There are quite a few different patterns available for making masks. Just put fabric face mask in your search engine of choice and you’ll find plenty.

Most use elastic hoops around the ears, although they can become painful if worn for a long time. If that’s the case, you might like to look at home-made extenders as well, which are knitted, crocheted or fabric bands with buttons on either end that sit at the back of the head and take the strain of the elastic. Again, Google face mask extenders pattern and there’s a wealth of instructions.

Instructions for a very simple mask as suggested by the UK government are here.

I’ve been making pleated face masks with fabric ties, and are pretty easy to do.

Many patterns also provide options to insert filters and frames to use around the nose – which could be useful for anyone who finds their glasses steaming up.

Many commercial masks are in plain, dark colours, but if you’re making your own, it’s a good opportunity to use up some spare fun fabric you might have in a cupboard somewhere.




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