Coronavirus (COVID-19) masks: Legislation, types, prices and more!
Published 16 Sep 2020 • Updated 16 Dec 2020 • By Candice Salomé
Faced with the exponential increase in the number of cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) infection, new, more restrictive measures are being introduced across the UK: wearing a mask has become compulsory in many public settings, as well as in some companies and schools. But what exactly do we know about these measures? What do we risk if we don't follow them? What types of masks should we use and how long can we wear them?
We shed light on all these questions in our article!
What is the purpose of wearing a mask?
Wearing a mask limits the risk of spreading a virus, whether it's COVID-19, the flu or any other respiratory virus. It acts as a "barrier" preventing the passage of bacterial and viral particles. By wearing a mask, you protect yourself, but also and above all, others.
Since 24 July, masks have become mandatory in most public settings in England (from 10 July in Scotland, 10 August in Northern Ireland and 14 September in Wales), in addition to barrier gestures, the aim being to limit the risks of a second wave of the epidemic.
"The coronavirus' mode of transmission is more or less the same as that of influenza, i.e. it is transmitted from person to person during close contact (touching or shaking hands, for example) and through the air by coughing or sneezing (droplets of saliva, sputum)," explains Pierre Parneix, a medical officer and hospital practitioner in Public Health at Bordeaux University Hospital.
It is therefore important to wear a mask outside the home in order to limit the risks of contracting the Sars CoV-2 virus, or transmitting it if you are infected.
What are some of the latest measures taken regarding masks?
The measures may change as the UK enters the different phases of the COVID response, so do not hesitate to consult the Government's website for the latest updates: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own
A brief overview of the latest measures that have come into effect:
Wearing a mask in indoor settings:
Since 24 July, in England masks have become compulsory in the following indoor settings:
- Public transport
- Transport hubs
- Shops and supermarkets
- Shopping centres
- Auction houses
- Premises providing professional, legal or financial services (post offices, banks, etc.)
- Premises providing personal care and beauty treatments
- Premises providing veterinary services
- Visitor attractions and entertainment venues (museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, etc.)
- Libraries and public reading rooms
- Places of worship
- Funeral service providers (funeral homes, crematoria and burial ground chapels)
- Community and youth centres, social clubs
- Exhibition halls and conference centres
- Public areas in hotels and hostels
- Storage and distribution facilities
Masks must be worn before entry any of the listed places and should not be removed until you leave, unless you have a reasonable excuse for removing it.
They should also be worn in indoor setting not mentioned in the above list where social distancing may be difficult and where you may come into contact with people from outside your support bubble.
You can find a more complete list and access information for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland here.
Wearing a mask is not yet compulsory in the workplace, but may be recommended:
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has published guidance covering different types of work and workplaces outlining recommended actions and considerations for employers. Depending on the setting and type of work, employers may ask you to wear a mask if they are not already compulsory. You can consult the guidance for working safely during coronavirus here.
Wearing masks in education settings (primary, secondary, college and universities):
The Government is not currently recommending mandatory face coverings in education settings due to the controls that may already be in place. It is at the discretion of the schools and colleges to require masks depending on their particular circumstances.
In England, secondary schools may require masks in communal areas where social distancing is not possible. They may also be mandatory in schools in areas that are under local lockdown or extra restrictions, but not in the classroom.
In Scotland, masks must be worn by adults and pupils over age 12 in corridors and communal areas. They are not required in classrooms if proper social distancing measures are being respected. Masks are also required on school transport by all children above 5 years of age.
In Wales, schools and colleges may require masks in communal areas where social distancing is not possible. They are not recommended in the classroom.
In Northern Ireland, masks must be worn by adults and pupils over age 12 in corridors and communal areas of post-primary schools. They are not required in classrooms if proper social distancing measures are being respected. Masks are also recommended on school transport.
For universities, no all-encompassing guidance has been released by the Government. Students should check with their university which may have independent measures or restrictions in place.
Are there any exceptions to wearing a mask?
In settings where masks are required in England, the following exceptions are allowed:
- children under the age of 11
- people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering on their own (due to a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability)
- employees of indoor settings or transport workers
- police officers and other emergency workers
- in the case that putting on, wearing or removing a mask will cause you severe distress
- if you are speaking to or assisting someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate
- to avoid harm or injury, or the risk of harm or injury, to yourself or others
Masks may also be removed:
- if asked to do so in a bank, building society, or post office for identification
- if asked to do so by shop staff or relevant employees for identification, for assessing health recommendations (e.g. by a pharmacist), or for age identification purposes
- if required in order to receive treatment or services
- in order to take medication
- if you are delivering a sermon or prayer in a place or worship
- if you are the persons getting married in a relevant place
- if you are aged 11 to 18 attending a faith school and having lessons in a place of worship as part of your core curriculum
- if you are undertaking exercise or an activity and it would negatively impact your ability to do so
- if you are an elite sports person, professional dancer or referee acting in the course of your employment
If you have an age-, health- or disability-related reason to not wear a mask, you are allowed to do so without having to provide written evidence of your condition. You are not required to seek advice or request a letter or certificate from a medical professional justifying your not wearing a mask.
Some people may feel more at ease with a card or badge indicating that they are exempt from wearing a mask. You can access premade, printable exemption card templates here.
What are the penalties for not wearing a mask?
In England, failure to wear a mask in places where face coverings are required (including public transport) without a valid exemption is considered an offence and may be punishable with a fine or denial of service. The police and certain transport officers have enforcement powers including issuing fines of £100 (halving to £50 if paid within 14 days for the first offence). Repeat offenders will have their fines doubled at each new offence with no discount, up to a maximum value of £3,200.
In Scotland, non-compliance with mask regulations without a reasonable excuse may be enforced by the police with fines of £60 (halving to £30 if paid within 28 days)
In Wales, breaches of mask requirements without a valid exemption may be enforced by police or environmental health officers with penalties of £60 for a first offence (which doubles for each subsequent offence up to a maximum of £1,920). Repeat offenders could also be prosecuted in court where there is no limit to the fine that may be issued.
In Northern Ireland, failure to wear a mask in places where they are required is also considered an offence and may be enforced with fines of £60 (halving to £30 if paid within 14 days). Repeat offenders will have their fines doubled at each new offence, up to a maximum of £960.
What are the different types of masks? What are their prices? Where to buy them?
There are several types of masks for protection against coronavirus: single-use surgical (medical) face masks, reusable fabric face coverings for the general public and FFP or N95 respirators.
All masks must be handled in the same way:
Source: Birmingham Health Partners
Surgical face masks:
Surgical face masks are designed to be normally worn in medical settings to limit the spread of infection. These are mainly intended for health care staff to wear to protect patients during surgical procedures and other medical settings. A surgical mask is a medical device (class 1 medical device, EN 14683 standard). These masks normally have a BFE (bacterial filtration efficiency) of 95%, meaning they stop at least 95% of particles of 3 microns and larger.
Surgical masks can be worn for up to 4 hours unless they becomes wet before then, in which case they should be discarded and replaced.
These masks can be found in some supermarkets and pharmacies like Boots, Superdrug, Asda and Tesco, or online, and typically cost around £0.45/unit, depending on the retailer.
The Government recommends that people should avoid medical masks, as high demand for them is likely to put strain on supplies for frontline workers. It is also important to note that because they are not recyclable and must be disposed of after each wear, they are not very cost-effective or practical for day-to-day activities.
Masks for the general public (reusable or fabric face coverings):
This type of mask is made of fabric, is washable and reusable. They have filtering properties of at least 70% filtration of emitted particles (vs. 95% to 98% for surgical masks). They can be made by hand (see Public Health England's tutorial here) or bought in shops or online. The UK does not currently have any product standards for cloth face coverings as they are not a medical product, so it is important to take care in buying a mask from a reputable seller or in making one yourself in line with official guidance. WHO has advised that one use a three-layer mask, as it is thought to be more effective than a single or double layer. The UK government guidelines recommend at least two layers of fabric.
Reusable face masks are typically sold between £3 and £5 pounds/unit depending on the retailer and the fabric used. They can be found in supermarkets, pharmacies and online.
It is recommended to wash them in the washing machine for at least 30 minutes at 60°C and make sure that they are completely dry before reusing.
FFP2, FFP3 or N95 respirators:
FFP2, FFP3, or N95 respirators are safety masks with a very high level of filtration. According to the European standard EN 149, the number 1, 2 or 3 defines the filtration level of the mask. The FFP1 mask filters 80% of aerosols (which can carry the virus), the FFP2 94% and the FFP3 99%. They also protect against potentially infectious sputum and droplets of saliva sprayed when coughing or sneezing.
These masks are not appropriate for everyday use and should be reserved for medical staff. Demand for these masks puts strain on the supply chain and diverts essential supplies from the frontline workers who need them.
Was this article helpful to you?
Share your thoughts and questions in the comments!