Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): public use of face coverings

Published: 30 Oct 2020
Last updated: 6 Jan 2021 - see all updates

Explains where you need to wear a face covering and exemptions from wearing one.

30 Oct 2020
Coronavirus (COVID-19): public use of face coverings

This information relates to the use of face coverings in public spaces and workplaces

Physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene are the most important and effective things we can all do to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Face coverings are not an alternative to any of these other precautions.

The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, face covering may provide some additional protection,  especially in crowded and less well ventilated spaces, and where 2 metre distancing is not possible. 

You must by law (with the exceptions set out below) wear a face covering in shops, on public transport and public transport premises such as railway and bus stations and airports, and in certain other indoor public places such as shops, restaurants/cafes including  canteens (including in workplaces and when not seated), libraries and places of worship.

This includes, for example, when attending an appointment at any healthcare setting such as GPs' surgeries, dentists, optometrists and hospitals.

In workplaces (other than an early learning or school setting), you are legally obliged to wear a face covering in communal areas indoors, unless exempt.

You are also advised to wear a face covering in other indoor places and where physical distancing is difficult and where there is a risk of being within 2 metres of people who are not members of your household. 

Whilst it is not compulsory to wear a face covering outdoors it is recommended in crowded situations where physical distancing is not always possible, such as at the school gate or at the entrance to a building. In such circumstances you are expected to wear a face covering.

What is a face covering?

A face covering can be a covering of any type, except a face shield, that covers the mouth and nose. It is recommended that it be made of cloth or other textiles and should be two, and preferably three, layers thick and fit snugly while allowing you to breathe easily. Religious face coverings that cover the mouth and the nose count as face coverings for these purposes. Transparent face coverings which assist communication for those who rely on lip-reading and facial expressions can also be worn.

Face shields may be used, but only if they are worn in addition to a face covering underneath, as the evidence shows that they do not provide adequate protection on their own.

Find out how to make your own face covering.

How to wear and care for your face covering

A face covering should cover your mouth and nose. If you are unable to wear a face covering, a face visor or face shield can be worn as it does provide a limited level of protection. Every time you apply or remove a covering, it is important that you wash or sanitise your hands first and avoid touching your face. When temporarily storing a face covering, such as in a pocket when moving between spaces, it should be placed in a washable bag or container and you should avoid placing it on surfaces, due to the possibility of contamination. See this helpful poster on how to use your face covering correctly.

If a face covering becomes wet or soiled when you are using it, it should be replaced immediately with a clean one. Re-usable face coverings should be washed after use, for example after a school day, or a trip to the supermarket.

If your face covering is reusable, after each use machine wash it on the highest setting suitable for the fabric, preferably 60 degrees centigrade. Face coverings should only be hand washed if a washing machine is unavailable. For hand washing, lather face coverings for at least 20 seconds using warm to hot water before drying ideally in a tumble dryer. Iron face coverings on the cotton or linen setting to kill any remaining germs.

If your face covering is not reusable, you should dispose of it safely in the general waste bin. Disposable face coverings and gloves cannot be recycled.

Don’t create litter. Littering is a criminal offence and you can receive a fixed penalty of up to £80. Please respect our communities, wildlife and countryside and put disposable face coverings or gloves in the litter bin, or take them home to dispose of safely.

If you have coronavirus or live with someone who does, you need to take extra precautions before throwing away disposable face coverings. Double bag personal waste items that have been in contact with the person (including face covering or gloves), store the waste safely for 72 hours, then throw it in the bin.

Mandatory face coverings

You must by law wear a face covering in certain indoor places:

  • any premises which open to members of the public and are used for the retail sale or hire of goods or services, such as shops, takeaway restaurants, pharmacies, estate agents, beauty parlours and shopping malls. 
  • health and social care settings
  • hospitality premises such as bars, pubs and cafes and restaurants,  and canteens (including workplace canteens).
  • banks, building societies, credit unions and post offices
  • visitor attractions, indoor tourist, heritage or cultural sites such as  museums and galleries, aquariums, indoor zoos or visitor farms,
  • entertainment venues such as cinemas, indoor theatres, comedy clubs, concert halls, soft play centres, bingo halls, bowling alleys, amusement arcades, snooker and pool halls, and other leisure facilities,  indoor funfairs and indoor skating rinks
  • indoors in communal areas in workplaces, where people mingle or gather to, for example, socialise or transit such as passageways, stairs, lifts, staff rooms, training rooms, changing rooms and entrances.
  • community centres
  • courts and tribunal buildings
  • crematoriums and funeral directors' premises
  • libraries and public reading rooms
  • places of worship
  • storage and distribution facilities, including collection and drop-off points
  • indoor fitness studios, gyms, swimming pools or other indoor leisure centres
  • sports stadiums
  • conference or exhibition centres

We advise the use of face coverings in public toilets.


A face covering must be worn by all passengers and staff or operators in the following settings:

  • train services including the Glasgow subway
  • bus services and the Edinburgh tram
  • taxi and private hire vehicles
  • bus stations, railway stations (including open air stations) and airports
  • ferry services (unless the ferry is open to the elements and physical distancing can be achieved, or the vessel is large enough that physical distancing can be achieved)
  • airline services

You must wear a face covering before entering any of these settings and must keep it on until you leave unless an exemption applies to you.

Face covering exemptions

Some people are not required to wear a face covering.

These include:

  • babies, toddlers and children under 5 years of age, due to the possibility of overheating, suffocation and strangulation and they are safe without one
  • when a person may have a certain health condition or disability (including hidden disabilities, for example, autism, dementia or a learning disability), which prevents them wearing a face coverings safely. This covers children with breathing difficulties and disabled children who would struggle to wear a face covering.
  • where it would cause difficulty, pain or severe distress or anxiety to the wearer or the person in the care of the wearer
  • anyone who cannot apply a covering and wear it in the proper manner safely and consistently
  • police constables or emergency response workers such as paramedics acting in the course of their duty. For these groups, relevant workplace guidance still recommends wearing a face covering in most circumstances
  • those performing, presenting, addressing a public gathering, making a speech or being a panel member in an indoor public space where it is mandatory to wear a face covering who are physically separated, by means of a partition (screen), from the audience or if they maintain a 2 metre distance from the audience.
  • owners, managers, members of staff, or volunteers, of indoor premises where it is mandatory to wear a face covering who are physically separated, by means of, for example, partition screens, from passengers or customers or if they maintain a 2 metre distance from customers or members of the public
  • employees undertaking tasks in the course of their employment, where the wearing of a face covering would cause material risk of harm, for example, on the factory floor due to production requirements. Employees should follow existing sector guidance on appropriate controls for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in these settings.  
  • a person leading an act of worship, service, ceremony or registration in a place of worship, or at a funeral, marriage ceremony or civil partnership, where there is a partition screen or a distance of 2 metres is maintained 
  • the couple getting married or entering a civil partnership for the duration of the ceremony or registration provided the couple are 2m apart or separated by a partition, from any other person
  • anyone who is eating, drinking or exercising
  • anyone who needs to take medication and cannot do so whilst wearing a face covering
  • a person who is communicating with someone else who relies on lip reading and facial expressions to communicate; such people should remove the face covering only temporarily whilst communicating and replace it immediately afterwards
  • anyone who is seeking medical assistance, or acting to avoid injury, illness or harm, and where wearing a face covering would make this more difficult; this also applies if someone needs emergency assistance and they don’t have a face covering with them or there is not time to put one on
  • a person who is providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person and where wearing a face covering would make this more difficult; this also applies if someone needs to provide emergency assistance and they don’t have a face covering with them or there is not time to put one on
  • when a relevant person, such as a police officer, judicial office holder or tribunal chairpersons asks you to remove your face covering
  • in a restaurant/café including canteen, bar or other hospitality setting, a person who is seated at a table to eat or drink.

What doesn’t count

  • not wanting to wear a face covering
  • mild discomfort when wearing one

If there is a need to remove a face covering temporarily you should, at all times possible, maintain 2 metres distance from other people who are not members of your household. Removing your face covering places others at an increased risk.

Those exempt under the guidance and regulations do not have to prove their exemption and should not be made to wear a face covering or denied access to places where face coverings are required. We ask for people to be aware of the exemptions and to treat each other with kindness.

Request a face covering exemption card

Some people may feel more comfortable showing something that says they are exempt from wearing a face covering.

This could be in the form of an exemption card, lanyard or badge. This can help people who are exempt feel more confident and safe when accessing public spaces and using public services.

You can request a face covering exemption card on 0800 121 6240 or through the exemption card website.

Helping others

Some people will struggle to hear or understand people wearing a face covering because they can’t see their mouth or facial expression, such as, people who rely on lip reading or who use British Sign Language. Others will be unable to wear a face covering or to do so safely due to a disability or a medical condition

You can help by being patient and by:

1. Being aware that if someone is deaf they cannot hear you and may not know you are talking to them so –

  • making sure you have their attention by waving, and using gestures and pointing
  • trying to reduce any background noise (where possible)
  • speaking slowly, asking if the person can hear you, and using signs and body language to emphasise what you are saying
  • taking off your own face covering where necessary - if you are communicating with someone who needs to see your face or has difficulty understanding you. (Please remember to stay at least 2 metres apart when removing your face covering and replace your face covering once you’ve finished speaking)

2. Being aware that there are many good reasons why someone might not be wearing a face covering. Please be kind and understanding. Some people may be wearing a lanyard or badge to show they are exempt or carry an exemption card, but some may not.

3. Being aware that some people may need more time at the counter, as they may need to write down their enquiries or use other communication aids.

4. Being aware and considerate of others and remain 2 metres apart.

Enforcement measures for failing to comply

Where face coverings are required, people responsible for relevant premises should take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law.

If necessary, the police have enforcement powers including issuing  penalty notices of £60 (halving to £30 if paid within 28 days) if members of the public do not comply with this law.

Face coverings at work

There are workplace guidance for workers and employees. Employers must ensure that the risk assessment for their business addresses the risks of COVID-19 using Scottish Government guidance to inform decisions and control measures. employees should also continue to follow the guidance from their employer which is based on their local health and safety assessment.

Where 2 metre physical distancing cannot be maintained or there is not a partition, the onus to wear a face covering in indoor communal areas in a workplace is on the individual.

Buying and selling face coverings

The British Standards Institute has adopted the following specification for “barrier masks”, for the agreed standard for the UK, which can be downloaded. There is no requirement for face coverings to meet any specific quality standards.

The British Retail Consortium has released a specification for Textile Barrier Face Coverings designed for both disposable and reusable face coverings. The specification sets out the design, performance and chemical requirements of coverings, as well as labelling instructions. 

We will continue to keep this guidance under review

First published: 30 Oct 2020 Last updated: 6 Jan 2021 -