Buckle up as we attempt to tackle the impossible: understanding UK government COVID-19 restrictions. England has been widely criticised in its approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s vague and conflicting guidance has undoubtedly resulted in a plethora of hilarious memes, GIFs and twitter banter, but has also left citizens confused about how to go about their lives and run or restart their businesses.

Different areas, different rules

The United Kingdom is comprised of four countries, England, Wales, Scotland (which collectively make up Great Britain) plus The Republic of Northern Ireland. There are different rules for different countries, and the same applies to COVID-19 guidance for each area. The population of the entire United Kingdom is approximately 66 million people. Here’s the breakdown:

The population of countries in the United Kingdom as of 2019:

  • England: 56.29 million
  • Scotland 5.46 million
  • Wales: 3.15 million
  • The Republic of Northern Ireland: 1.89 million

Population density is also an important consideration when looking at the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to being the most populous country by numbers, England is also the most densely populated.

Looking at the entire UK, as of 2019, the population density for the United Kingdom was 275 people per square kilometre. Here is the population density of people per square kilometre for each country in the United Kingdom as of 2019:

  • England: 462
  • Scotland: 70
  • Wales: 152
  • The Republic of Northern Ireland: 137

Given the variance, in population and density by country, it makes sense to have different guidelines. This isn’t a unique practice. In both Germany and the United States, there’s separate guidance from state to state.

Here’s some context regarding the UK’s nearby neighbours. England is on the higher end of the spectrum relative to other European countries.

  • Germany’s population is 83.7 million, and their population density is 240 per square kilometre
  • France’s population is 65.2 million, and their population density is 119 per square kilometre
  • The Netherlands population is 17.1 million, and their population density is 508 per square kilometre (they take the cake for the most densely populated country in the European Union)

For reference, here are links to COVID-19 guidance for each country that comprises the United Kingdom:

Face covering confusion in England

The most recent debacle over COVID-19 rules and regulations is around face coverings. The government was late to implement rules requiring people to wear face coverings, but at least they started with a clear-cut policy. On 4 June the government announced that as of 15 June in England face coverings would be required when riding public transport or in a hospital as a visitor or an outpatient. Easy enough, if you’re in England and visiting a hospital or getting on a bus, tube, or train, you must wear a face mask.

Most recently, the government announced that as of 24 July face coverings or face masks will be required when in shops and grocery stores. Face masks will not be necessary if you’re in a restaurant or pub or in an office. Whether or not you need a face covering in a takeaway restaurant like Pret A Manger was up for debate but is now leaning towards no. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was criticised for not wearing a face covering during a photo op of him serving customers food in Nandos restaurant as part of his “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. Although face coverings are not required to be worn by waiters, they’ve become commonplace amongst restaurant workers. Sunak tried to redeem himself by wearing a face mask with a valve while picking up a bite to eat at Pret A Manger. He quickly came under fire for his mask faux-pas, wearing a face mask with a valve, which essentially acts as a jetstream or an exhaust pipe to disperse potentially COVID-ridden droplets upon exhaling. The valves are one way, meaning they filter particles from entering as you breath in, but anything you breathe out bypasses the filter. Such face coverings are banned in places like New York City as well as many parts of California and Colorado. It’s surprising that Sunak really missed the mark on the valved face masks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson put on a good show recently wearing his less-controversial cloth face covering.

Those who don’t wear a face covering, unless they’re under the age of 11 or have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing one are subject to fines. The fine is £100 and is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days.

“Under the new rules, people who do not wear a face covering will face a fine of up to £100, in line with the sanction on public transport and just as with public transport, children under 11 and those with specific disabilities will be exempt.

The liability for wearing a face covering lies with the individual.”

I’m a shop owner, am I now the face covering police as well?

If you own a shop, you may be asking yourself how to manage the face mask requirement. No one wants to deal with various “Karens” who refuse to wear a mask in your store. At the same time, you want to make your conscious customers comfortable and keep shoppers safe. This virus is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not worth looking the other way at someone flouting the rules, they could very well make you, or someone in your store, sick.

Here’s the official government advice for shop owners about wearing face masks:

“Should an individual without an exemption refuse to wear a face covering, a shop can refuse them entry and can call the police if people refuse to comply, the police have the formal enforcement powers and can issue a fine.

This is in line with how shops would usually manage their customers and enforcement is, of course, the last resort, and we fully expect the public to comply with the rules as they have done throughout the pandemic.”

There are plenty of viral videos of non-compliant “covidiots” refusing to wear masks in stores, particularly in the United States. This antisocial behaviour is not what any shop owner wants to deal with amid a global pandemic right as you’re working on getting your business back on track after a few months of lockdown and lost revenue. Hopefully, English citizens will be better behaved about wearing masks. It’s best to be prepared, so here are some tips should you come across someone in your shop who is refusing to wear a face covering, or even worse, wearing a mask around their chin rather than covering their nose and mouth. You have options when it comes to dealing with the situation and keeping your operations running.

Non-Confrontational Approaches:

  • Really practice your side-eye (the only genuinely expressive part of your face that will be visible as you’ll be wearing a mask), give the unmasked customer an extended long stare and hope they’ll get the hint and put their mask on
  • Hang up signs throughout the store that say a face covering (worn over your nose and mouth, also known as proper mask use) is required to be worn at all times in your shop
  • Approach the unmasked customer and show them this endearing video of Tom Hanks asking everyone to wear a mask. Who can say no to him?

Slightly more confrontational options:

  • Ask the customer to either put on a mask or leave your store
  • Provide them with a free mask
  • Start selling masks since they’re legally required to wear them to complete our regular errands for the foreseeable future

Most confrontational approaches:

  • Take a few queues from this explicit sign penned by a straight-shooting New Yorker. A firm yet less severe message could be, “No mask, no service.” For a quintessentially British version that also eaves in some helpful advice in these trying times perhaps, “Keep Calm and Mask On.”

If you’re looking for further inspiration, here is a round-up of signs asking customers to wear a mask. Yes, face masks are undeniably awkward, hot, stuffy, and an unfamiliar practice (or fashion accessory, depending on how you look at it) to many western cultures. However, if the country wants to prevent a second wave and another lockdown, face masks are proving to be a helpful tool.

It’s hard to think about turning away any sort of business and looking the other way on mask compliance during these stressful times. However, it’s essential to follow the laws to manage the spread of COVID-19. In the long-term, this is better for both the health of the community and your business.

Neighbouring countries face mask requirements

Nearby countries have more stringent face mask requirements than the current rules in the UK and seem to be getting on post-pandemic.

Spain: Rules vary throughout different regions in Spain regarding face masks. Travel guidelines state that face masks are required for anyone over the age of six and in all public spaces when it’s not possible to maintain social distancing of 1.5 metres. In some parts of Spain face masks are required at all times, even when there’s plenty of space. Spain’s rule goes as far as to specify that masks must also be worn over the nose and mouth. In July the government for the Catalonia region and the Balearic Islands, which includes Formentera, Ibiza, Menorca and Mallorca made wearing face masks in public mandatory. For the Balearic islands, there are exceptions for holidaymakers and locals alike when they are at the pool, playing sports, or eating and drinking at a restaurant. In Catalonia, face masks are required even by the beach and pool (which will be sure to make for some great tan lines).

Italy: In Italy, you must wear a face mask in any indoor or enclosed public spaces. In the Lombardy and Piedmont regions, they must be worn in all public areas. This means when you go into a restaurant, you must wear a mask until you’re sat at your table.

France: In France, shop owners can decide whether or not they require customers to wear face masks. Masks are required for public transport. France is considering implementing rules requiring face masks in enclosed public spaces.

Switzerland: On 6 July Switzerland imposed a requirement to wear a face mask on public transport at a federal level due to a steady increase in cases of COVID-19 in June. Previously, Switzerland had made masks mandatory at protests. You are not required to wear a mask at supermarkets in Switzerland except for two Cantons that decided they would be required.

Germany: In April, Germany instated a requirement to wear face masks on public transport across all 16 German states. There are varying regulations in each state within Germany, but most require covers in shops as well as schools. Paul Ziemiak, the secretary-general of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, went so far as to tweet, “Wearing a mask is sexy,” followed by, “Think not only of yourself but of others.”

Greece: Greece requires face masks when using all forms of public transport and taxis. Masks are also needed in lifts and medical facilities. Greece recently relaxed rules requiring face masks in shops.

Turkey: Those in Turkey are required to wear face masks when out in public. However, there’s an exception for hotels in an effort to attract holidaymakers. Once on the grounds or property of a hotel, guests are not required to wear a mask.

I’m worried masks will negatively impact my business

Once legally required in England, people will quickly adjust and accept masks as another part ofthe “new normal.” People are inclined to get on with life and return to their regular routine. Wearing a face covering is a small price to pay for the feeling of what’s familiar and fun. It’s also commonplace nearly everywhere in Europe and many parts of the world at the moment. Face masks played a significant role in combatting the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s. Curiously enough, fines for not wearing a face mask in public during the Spanish Flu were somewhat similar to what most countries charge today for refusing to wear a mask. Another takeaway from the Spanish Flu is that correctly and consistently wearing a mask across an entire community is essential in curbing the spread of a virus.

Getting back to (masked) business

If your business is currently struggling to find its feet, it’s worth considering options to help you flourish as we come out of lockdown, face masks and all. The government is offering SMEs support during this challenging time through the CBILS programme. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme offers debt in the form of term loans, asset finance, revolving credit facilities and invoice finance facilities to qualified borrowers. The scheme is designed for UK-based businesses who have experienced decreased cash flow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. CBILS facilities are government-backed (80% guarantee), and the government cover the interest and any fees for the first 12 months of the loan term.

For more information, check out our COVID-19 Impact Support Hub.