Publication - Advice and guidance

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

Published: 30 Oct 2020
Last updated: 28 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 and sticking to the FACTS are more important than ever. Face coverings are not an alternative to any of these other precautions.

The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, face coverings may provide additional protection from transmission of COVID-19, to both the wearer and those around the wearer, especially in crowded and less well ventilated spaces, and worn in addition to 2m physical distancing.

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 securely cover your mouth and nose and chin.
  • Wash or sanitise your hands before putting on or taking off your face covering.
  • Avoid touching your face when wearing a face covering.
  • If you need to store your face covering, for example in your pocket, try to use a washable bag or container.
  • Do not put your face covering down on surfaces.
  • If your face covering becomes wet or soiled, replace it 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.

See this helpful poster on how to use and how not to use your face covering correctly.

Washing and disposing of face coverings

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 in the general waste bin. Disposable face coverings cannot yet be recycled.

Do not litter. Littering is a criminal offence and you can receive a fixed penalty of up to £80. Please respect our communities, wildlife and countryside by putting disposable face coverings in the litter bin, or take them home to dispose of them 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 coverings). Store the waste safely for 72 hours, then throw it in the bin. Make sure you wash your hands straight away.

Where to wear face coverings

You must by law wear a face covering in the following places:

  • health and social care settings, including staff, patients and visitors
  • public transport
  • workplaces (other than early learning or school settings)
  • any premises open to members of the public and used for the retail sale or hire of goods or services, such as shops, takeaway restaurants, pharmacies, estate agents, beauty parlours and shopping malls. 
  • hospitality premises such as bars, pubs and cafes and restaurants, and canteens (including workplace canteens)
  • banks, building societies, credit unions and post offices
  • courts and tribunal buildings
  • places of worship
  • 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
  • community centres
  • crematoriums and funeral directors' premises
  • libraries and public reading rooms
  • 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

Face coverings at work

There is 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 in their specific workplace environment and taking into consideration other appropriate mitigations in place.

Employees should also continue to follow the guidance from their employer which is based on their local health and safety assessment.

Face coverings must be worn by retail, leisure and hospitality staff working in any indoor areas that is open to the public.

Face coverings are legally required in all communal areas of workplaces.

Face coverings in other spaces

You are advised to wear a face covering in all other indoor places and where there is a risk of being within 2 metres of people who are not members of your household. This includes public toilets.

It is recommended that you wear face coverings outdoors in situations where 2 metre 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.

Face covering exemptions

The vast majority of people can wear a face covering, including most people with a lung condition such as asthma, and everyone who can wear a face covering in the mandated spaces is legally required to do so.

Some people who cannot wear a face covering can wear a face shield; and those who can should, as it provides some protection against transmission of the virus.

However, some people may not be able to wear a face covering safely and therefore could have an exemption.

These include:

  • babies, toddlers and children under 5 years of age, due to the possibility of overheating, suffocation and strangulation.
  • when a person may have a certain health condition, disability (including hidden disabilities, for example, autism, dementia or a learning disability) or severe anxiety, which prevents them wearing a face covering safely. This includes children with breathing difficulties and disabled children who would struggle to wear a face covering safely.
  • where it would cause difficulty, pain or severe distress or anxiety to the wearer or the person in the care of the wearer

What does not count

  • not wanting to wear a face covering
  • mild discomfort when wearing one
  • not wearing a face covering because they steam up your glasses
  • having a health condition or disability which does not prevent you from wearing a face coverings safely, such as well-managed asthma or if you are deaf and lip read

If you are unable to wear a face covering you might be able to wear a face visor or face shield and in this case you should do so as it does provide a limited level of protection.

For people with exemption there may be some occasions when you can wear a face covering or face shield, and some where you cannot, in these cases, consider whether you are able to wear a face covering or face shield on each given day, rather than not wearing one at all.

If you are unsure whether you should wear a face covering due to your medical condition then please seek advice from your doctor.

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.

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.

Carrying an exemption card is a personal choice and is not required by law.

There are certain situations where a person would not need to wear a face covering because it may be inappropriate. These are:

  • when taking medication which requires removing a face covering
  • when seated in a hospitality setting to eat or drink
  • communicating with someone who relies on lip reading and facial expressions to communicate; such people should ensure 2 metres distance is maintained and remove the face covering only temporarily whilst communicating and replace it immediately afterwards
  • acting to avoid injury, illness or harm, and where wearing a face covering would impede this
  • when seeking emergency assistance or providing emergency assistance and you don’t have or there isn’t time to put on a face covering on
  • when a relevant person, such as a police officer, judicial office holder or tribunal chairperson asks you to remove your face covering
  • 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
  • Check the workplace guidance for your sector if there are activities where it would not be appropriate to wear a face covering.

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.

You can help by being patient and by 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)
  • speak 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. (Stay at least 2 metres apart when removing your face covering and replace it immediately  once you have finished speaking)
  • 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.

Enforcement measures for failing to comply

Where face coverings are required, if a member of the public does not wear a face covering 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.

People responsible for relevant premises where face coverings are required should take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law.

Buying and selling face coverings

There is no requirement for face coverings to meet specific levels of filtration efficiency and breathability.

In June 2020 the British Retail Consortium 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, but does not include tests for filtration efficiency. 

The British Standards Institute adopted the specification for “barrier masks”,  which is a kite mark standard and can be downloaded. Buying or selling a kite marked standard  provides consumers with confidence that their face covering provides some level of protection.

We will continue to keep this guidance under review.

First published: 30 Oct 2020 Last updated: 28 Jan 2021 -