Shops and public transport providers could face legal action if people who are exempt from wearing face masks due to their disability are turned away, legal experts have warned.
Face masks in shops were made compulsory on Friday, with face coverings on public transport becoming mandatory in mid-June.
Multiple health experts have suggested wearing face masks and coverings is key to preventing a second wave in the UK. But while the science indicates that masks could help protect others from contracting the virus, campaigners have warned that the obstructive nature of face coverings could cause serious problems for disabled people.
With this in mind thousands of people with disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask were made exempt, but there are fears that the new rules could lead discrimination against in public places – with incidents of disabled people facing confrontation already being reported.
Now legal experts have warned that shops, supermarkets and public transport providers could face legal action if staff turn away disabled people who are exempt from wearing masks.
Imogen Jolley from solicitors Simpson Millar said: “The legislation clearly states that some people are exempt from the new rules which require members of the public to wear a face covering when in a shop, confined public space, or on public transport.
“However, while it’s relatively easy to see if a child is of a certain age, some disabilities are less apparent and there are worrying reports to suggest that some people are being singled out as a result. That amounts to discrimination.
“It’s absolutely essential that supermarket chiefs and shop managers act now to educate their employees over the rights of disabled people specifically with the terms of the new rules in mind to prevent individuals being refused entry, turned away or asked to leave.
“If not, they would be in breach of the Regulations introduced in relation to the wearing of face coverings and potentially their Equality Act Duties.”
While the introduction of compulsory face masks has been welcomed by many in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, disability charities have warned that face coverings could cause serious issues – both practical and social – for some.
James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at disability equality charity Scope, said: “It’s good that action is being taken to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, but making face coverings compulsory could create new difficulties for many disabled people.
“In recent weeks, we’ve heard from disabled people who’ve been challenged over not wearing a face covering while using public transport, causing much distress and anxiety.
“The government must make it really clear to everyone that disabled people who cannot safely wear face coverings are exempt.”
There are also fears that masks, the vast majority of which are opaque and completely obscure the mouth, will make transactions in shops impossible for people who are reliant on lip-reading.
Taylor added: “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.”