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Face masks are now mandatory in most public settings in England – and for some, that news brings with it a lot of anxiety.
While some people with physical or mental illnesses or disabilities are exempt from wearing face covers, they still fear being shamed by members of the public or shop workers for not wearing one.
Nicola Little, 27, has asthma and anxiety, and finds it difficult to breathe when wearing a face cover. While she’s considered exempt from having to wear a face covering because of her health, she worries about being shamed when out in public because her illness is invisible.
Little, who lives in Stevenage with her partner and young daughter, wore a face cover on the bus when they were first made mandatory on public transport back in June because she was too scared to tell the bus driver she had asthma.
But when she put on the mask, Little, who is also prone to panic attacks, started to feel the familiar rise of anxiety. “I start panicking, I get anxious, I’m hot and stuffy. It just makes you feel really restricted,” she tells HuffPost UK.
She has since told bus drivers she has asthma, and was given a downloadable exemption card from Asthma UK to show anyone who might question her for not wearing one, but she still feels guilty as well as anxious about being shamed by strangers.
Little says she feels “scared” about masks becoming mandatory in shops and worries she’s going to have to revert to online shopping to avoid being called out for not wearing one.
“I don’t think I’d be able to do a food shop with a face mask on the whole time,” she says. “I’ll have to start shopping online again, which I don’t really want to do because I enjoy going to the shops – it’s good for the mental health as well.”
The 27-year-old, who works in a primary school, wishes there was a badge people could wear to show they are exempt from mask-wearing, a bit like ‘baby on board’ badges for pregnant women. “I definitely think we should have something like that,” she says, “because then you haven’t got to keep getting your phone out or a piece of paper, you can just wear it on your jumper and nobody will say anything to you.”
Fazilet Hadi, a policy manager at Disability Rights UK, told PA Media she has already heard several stories of people being confronted on public transport, despite having legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask.
Disability equality charity Scope has also heard from disabled people who’ve been challenged over not wearing a face covering while using public transport, “causing much distress and anxiety”.
While some charities have created exemption cards to explain why a mask is not being worn, Hadi believes there needs to be government advertising as well to make people truly aware.
“We heard horrific stories from the disability hate crime network about disabled people who’ve already been challenged on public transport,” she said. “We really urge the public to be kind and assume that the people around them aren’t wearing it for a reason.”
A government spokesperson said the guidance is “absolutely clear” that you do not need to wear a face covering if you have a legitimate reason not to, including because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability.
“We expect people to be sensitive to the fact that some groups of people are not able to wear a face covering, and will continue to communicate this message to the general public,” the spokesperson told PA Media.
It has launched an official exemption card and badge template, which people can download here.
Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, told HuffPost UK: “We need a greater awareness that there are exemptions from the rules on face coverings, and this includes people with severe respiratory conditions. Most people will be able to wear a face covering with no problem, but some people find that wearing a mask makes them feel like they can’t breathe.
“We urge the public to think twice before they judge someone for not wearing a face mask.
“Not all health conditions are visible and people with lung conditions have already told us that they’ve been publicly confronted by strangers about not wearing one, leaving them feeling anxious and humiliated.”
James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at Scope, pointed out that face coverings also make communicating difficult or impossible for people who rely on lip-reading, “so businesses and services need to recognise this, and have other ways of communicating in place so they are not excluding anyone”.
“Disabled people and their needs have been routinely forgotten throughout this crisis. If disabled people’s needs are ignored, society risks turning the clock back on equality,” he said.