People exempt from face covering rules fear abuse in shops

The Government has been urged to do more to protect people exempt from wearing a face covering after a charity highlighted "horrific" cases of disabled people being abused.

Face coverings will be mandatory in shops in England from Friday, with exclusions for people with physical or mental illnesses or disabilities.

Fazilet Hadi, a policy manager at Disability Rights UK, said she has already heard several stories of people being confronted on public transport – where masks have been mandatory since June – despite having legitimate reasons for not wearing one.

Ms Hadi and a number of people exempt from the rules told the PA news agency they fear further abuse as the use of face coverings becomes more widespread.

Jen, 44, from Birmingham, who did not want to give her surname, is autistic and does not have to wear a mask due to anxiety. She gave an example of a confrontation she endured recently on a bus.

She said: "I go to sit down and there is a sea of faces looking at me like 'how dare you get on our bus without your face covered?'."

Jen received an apology after explaining she is exempt, but said of the new law in shops: "I would bet my left kidney that we're going to have trouble."

James O'Rourke, 58, from Chingford, fears his brother Tony, 57, who has a moderate to severe learning disability, will be subjected to "inevitable abuse and prejudice".

He said: "If you can wear a mask, you should wear a mask. However, for those who cannot or will not because of their disability, then we're just painting a big target on them."

Mr O'Rourke said it is "great" charities and others have created exemption cards to explain why a mask is not being worn, but he warned: "They're not official, they're not endorsed by Government."

Mr O'Rourke added his brother's carers have avoided places where he could be challenged, but said "by avoiding (them), that is denying him his right to go on public transport".

Ms Hadi called for a Government advertising campaign to raise awareness of the exemptions.

She said: "I'd love to see Government advertising... I'm sure I'm not going to. People really shouldn't be confronting other people.

"We heard horrific stories from the disability hate crime network about disabled people who've already been challenged on public transport.

"We really urge the public to be kind and assume that the people around them aren't wearing it for a reason."

A report recently published by the Royal Society suggests even basic home-made face coverings can reduce transmission if enough people wear them when in public.

However, Jen is one of two people who have started a CrowdJustice campaign called "End the mandatory wearing of face masks for travel".

She said: "I can only tell you that the legal team are just beginning to do the research on whether or not we've even got a leg to stand on.

"It's just a couple of parents that had it suggested to us... that actually this could be quite a discriminatory thing."

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."