'Is it illegal not to wear a face mask?' Everything you need to know about COVID legalities

·7 min read
People are confused about the legalities of mask wearing. (Getty Images)
People are confused about the legalities of mask wearing. (Getty Images)

Last year the government introduced various rules and regulations the public were required to stick to in a bid to tackle the spread of coronavirus. 

From wearing a face mask in indoor public spaces, to quarantining at home on return from countries considered risky, the rules were designed to help curb the number of people contracting COVID-19 – but as lockdowns ease and rules change, confusion has risen. 

And more than a year on, with various restrictions still in place, and continually changing, some people remain unsure about the legalities; is mask wearing still a legal requirement? Can your employer take legal action if you go to a country on the amber list and have to isolate? And could you be legally accountable if you refuse to have the vaccine? 

Recent figures published by the National Police Chiefs' Council reveal a total of 120,519 fines were issued by the 43 territorial police forces, British Transport Police and Ministry of Defence for alleged breaches of COVID-19-related laws across England and Wales.

But human rights campaign groups say problems delivering a clear message have led to uncertainty over the fines system nationally, with some people unaware that they were breaking the law.

Human rights campaign group Liberty said "rapidly changing rules, chaotic communications and a misguided emphasis on criminal justice over public health" led to confusion over the fining system and meant that interpretation of coronavirus restrictions varied across different police force areas.

Read more: Private Covid testing and £500 fines: everything you need to know about the new UK travel rules

Meanwhile, charity Transform Justice's director Penelope Gibbs said: "The problem with COVID fines is that those fined have often had no idea whether they were transgressing the law or not.

"The new laws have been rushed in, have changed frequently and the police and the public have frequently confused legislation and guidance.

"So many, if not most, COVID fines are unfair."

Watch: Double vaccinated holidaymakers returning from Portugal face quarantine. 

Yahoo Style spoke to Amanda Hamilton, chief executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), to find out where the law stands on coronavirus regulations.

Is it actually illegal not to wear a face covering?

According to the government there are some places where you must wear a face covering by law, unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse. 

These include on public transport, in shops and supermarkets, bars and restaurants (moving around), shopping centres, visitor attractions, theatres and beauty salons.

The police can take measures if members of the public do not comply with this law without a valid exemption.

If necessary, the police and Transport for London (TfL) officers have enforcement powers, including issuing fines of £200 (reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days) for the first offence.

“If your government appears to give you an instruction, such as ‘wear a mask’, you may well believe that is a legal requirement," explains Hamilton. 

"However, there is no 'law' that makes it mandatory to wear a mask, as the legislative powers given to parliament only allows it to suggest guidelines only to keep its citizens as safe as possible, in the hope that everyone will do their bit to protect themselves and others.”

If you don't wear a mask and infect someone can you be held accountable?

Hamilton says the law will naturally be vague if you take the step not to continue with mask wearing, and you contract COVID, or worse, you are a carrier and pass it on to someone else.

This is partly because we are yet to experience such a case.

"In many ways, it will be like trying to ascertain how you contracted a common cold," she explains. "It will be difficult to pinpoint who had passed it on or from which location the virus was contracted."

However, she points out that the subtle difference in this circumstance is that having taken the step to refrain from mask wearing, you may be the only person to do so, and the finger may easily point at you.

"The question is whether you can be held liable in law and the simple answer is probably in the negative," Hamilton continues.

"The reason for this is that there is no law making it mandatory to wear masks, it is simply a guideline suggested by the government in order to keep people as safe as possible.

"So, it will definitely not be a crime (an offence against the state). But, could it be a civil wrong (an action caused by one individual against another individual causing injury or damage)? The answer to that is, maybe."

Read more: ‘Vaccine confidence’ sees spike in over-50s booking holidays

Is it illegal to travel to a country on the amber list? (Getty Images)
Is it illegal to travel to a country on the amber list? (Getty Images)

Read more: The post-Brexit passport rule changes you need to know about

Is it against the law to travel to a country on the amber list?

Foreign travel has opened up in England under a traffic light system, with countries classified as green, amber or red and given restrictions based on the risk of importing coronavirus infections back into the UK.

But holidaymakers have been left confused about the legalities surrounding the rules and whether or not it is actually illegal to travel to countries on the amber and red list. 

While the government is advising against holidaying in any country currently not on the green list, recreational international travel is no longer illegal in England. 

This is because guidance is not the same as law. 

The Department for Transport has advised travellers that they “should not be travelling to ‘amber’ and ‘red’ countries for leisure”, but there are no fines or penalties issued for going against this advice.

"To go to an amber country is not ‘illegal’ but the government has suggested some safety guidelines to follow," explains Hamilton. 

However, despite not being illegal, the government is strongly advising people not to travel to destinations on the amber and red list. 

When he first announced the lists, transport secretary Grant Shapps said that red list countries are “those which should not be visited except in the most extreme of circumstances”. 

He also made it clear that amber countries should not be visited for “leisure purposes”.

Read more: Surgeon shares 5p hack to stop glasses fogging up while wearing a face mask

Can your employer legally take action if you go on holiday to an amber country?

At the moment if you travel to a country on the amber list you will need to quarantine at home for 10 days on your return to the UK. 

According to Hamilton, whether making the decision to go against government guidelines has consequences in respect of a person’s employment depends very much on the employer, the job role and anything that may be in the individual’s employment contract. 

"For example, if an individual is a care/health worker, there may be more stringent rules relating to health and safety issues than other types of jobs, such as office workers," she explains. 

Getting the COVID vaccine isn't mandatory. (Getty Images)
Getting the COVID vaccine isn't mandatory. (Getty Images)

If you opt not to get vaccinated what are the legalities surrounding this?

Hamilton says there is no law in UK which requires mandatory vaccination as much as some anti-vaxxers claim otherwise. 

"The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 devolves powers to parliament to legislate in order to protect UK Citizens," she explains. 

"The law enables parliament to intervene in an emergency situation, such as the pandemic, and impose lockdowns and restrictions to protect citizens, but it cannot impose mandatory vaccinations." 

In other words, there is no power to make vaccinations mandatory.

"The Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 s20 states that an unlawful wounding would occur if a person were forced to have a vaccination against their will," Hamilton adds. 

"A wound means ‘a break of the skin’. This statute still remains in force today.

"Also, compulsory medical treatment or testing is contrary to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights meaning that it is a human right to refuse medical treatment if you wish to do so."

Watch: Shoppers heckled over face mask as thousands protest social distancing rules. 

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