New Covid laws: The latest rules for face masks and self-isolation amid rise of omicron cases

Breaches of new face mask laws to be punished by default fines of £200

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 30 November 2021 13:45
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New Covid laws have come into force in England allowing police to enforce isolation and face covering requirements.

The government has brought in the measures, which are the first of their kind since “freedom day” in July, in response to concerns over the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The two sets of laws were created by statutory instrument, meaning they were not scrutinised by parliament before coming into effect, and came into force at 4am on Tuesday.

They are separate from government guidance, which seeks to explain the law but is not legally binding in itself.

Breaches of the face mask law can be punished with fines of £200 for the first offence, reduced to £100 if paid within two weeks, doubling to a maximum of £6,400 for six offences or more.

The starting fine for breaking the new self-isolation law is £1,000, rising to a maximum of £10,000 for repeat offences.

What are the new face covering laws?

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Covering) (England) Regulations 2021 require people to wear a face covering when indoors on public transport, or in a “relevant place” indoors.

The law came into force at 4am on 30 November and will expire on 20 December unless they are extended or updated in that time.

The definition of face covering used is broad and includes any covering that securely covers the mouth and nose.

Relevant places have been defined by the government in the law. They include shops, enclosed shopping centres, banks, building societies, post offices and parts of transport hubs. Hospitality venues, such as restaurants, pubs, cafes and areas “being used wholly or mainly by people eating or drinking”, are excluded, as are GP practices, dental surgeries, opticians and other premises providing medical services.

Public transport includes buses, trains, private hire vehicles, taxis, the London Underground, trams and planes. The law excludes school buses and cruise ships, as well as private cabins and outdoor areas on transport and those areas “used mainly by people eating, drinking or dancing”.

Places covered by the law must display signs or take other measures to explain the requirements to people not wearing face coverings, the regulations say. They also state that business owners or managers cannot prevent people from wearing masks in relevant areas.

Who is exempt?

People exempt from legal face covering requirements include children under the age of 11, public transport operators, police officers, emergency responders and on-duty officials such as pilots, Border Force officers and health and safety inspectors.

Employees of “relevant places” are exempt from the law unless they are in areas that are open to the public and are “likely to come into close contact” with any member of the public.

If people are still covered by the law, there is a list of “reasonable excuses” meaning masks can be removed to eat and drink, receive medical treatment, take medication and “avoid harm or injury”.

Face coverings do not have to be used by anyone who is unable to wear them “without severe distress”, or because of any physical or mental illness, impairment or disability.

What are the penalties under face covering laws?

Police officers or public transport operators have the power to “direct a person to wear a covering”, or disembark.

It is a criminal offence to contravene the legal requirements or obstruct “anyone carrying out a function” under the regulations.

Police can issue fixed penalty notices to anyone aged 18 or over who has committed an offence, and people can then be prosecuted if they do not pay within 28 days.

The fine for a first offence is £200, reduced to £100 if paid within two weeks. The amount then doubles for each repeat offence, to £400, £800, £1,600, £3,200 and a maximum of £6,400 for six offences or more.

Omicron Variant Poses 'Very High' Global Risk, WHO Warns

How will police enforce the law?

Guidance issued to police officers across England repeats the model used earlier in the pandemic, where they must explain the law to people suspected of breaking it and encourage them to follow it voluntarily before moving to enforcement.

An official document says “enforcement should always be a last resort”, and that people can be denied entry to places or ordered to leave without being fined.

“You may only exercise any of the powers if you consider they are a necessary and proportionate means of ensuring compliance with the requirement to wear a face covering when using a relevant place,” it adds.

Arrests can be used for the purpose of “maintaining public health”, but they are not expected to be used unless a crime other than a coronavirus offence has been committed.

Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, who is leading the police response to coronavirus, said: “Police forces will increase officer visibility where possible in high risk and crowded areas, such as towns and shopping centres, and near transport hubs. If officers encounter individuals not wearing a face covering on public transport or in shops, they will engage with them, explain the risks and encourage them to comply with the new rules.

“Forces will continue to enforce coronavirus regulations where it is necessary to do so. We will support transport and retail staff in ensuring people wear face coverings in line with the regulations.

“We will work closely with businesses and will continue to respond to incidents where individuals are violent or abusive towards staff or members of the public.“

Police officers “acting in the course of their duty” are exempt from legal face covering requirements, but national guidance stipulates that they will wear masks in most circumstances while interacting with the public.

What is the new self-isolation law?

A separate set of Health Protection Regulations that came into force at 4am on 30 November mean that anyone who is a close contact of people “suspected of, or confirmed as having” the omicron variant of coronavirus must self-isolate.

The law states that exemptions from the duty, meaning people who are fully vaccinated, participating in coronavirus related research or clinically unable to be vaccinated do not have to self-isolate, only apply for other variants.

Close contact means any face-to-face contact at a distance of less than 1m, spending more than 15 minutes within 2m of an infected individual or travelling in close proximity to them.

Self-isolation means that people must not leave the place where they are living, unless necessary for a range of exemptions including seeking medical assistance, attending court, avoiding the risk of harm, attending funerals for close family and “obtaining basic necessities” fit here is no other way.

The isolation period mandated by the law is 10 days from the date someone tested positive or when their symptoms began..

What are the penalties?

Self-isolation checks can be carried out by local councils, government agencies and police. They can direct people back to the place they are self-isolated and “use reasonable force if necessary”.

People found to have contravened the legal requirement to self-isolate can be given a fine of £1,000 for the first offence, £2,000 for the second, £4,000 for the third, and £10,000 for four or more.

People who contravene the requirement in more serious circumstances, including by coming into contact with a group or being “reckless as to the consequences of that close contact for the health” of other people, can be fined £4,000 for the first offence and £10,000 afterwards.

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