Disability charities have written to the National Police Chiefs' Council asking it to clarify to police officers the rules on face covering exemptions.

The call comes as police officers are still wrongly claiming that people with disabilities must carry paperwork proving they are exempt from wearing face coverings.

Mencap, Disability Rights UK, Big Brother Watch, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Survivors Trust wrote to Council Chair Martin Hewitt outlining concerns about the treatment of people who are legally exempt from the requirement to wear face coverings, citing "widespread confusion" among police officers.

It said they were alarmed by ongoing reports of police officers wrongly claiming that people with disabilities must carry paperwork and show proof on request that they are exempt from the requirement to wear a face covering. This has no basis in law and risks discriminating against those with disabilities.

The Regulations state an individual must wear a face covering on public transport and in certain indoor spaces unless they have “a reasonable excuse” which includes where they “cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering” due to “any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability” or if doing so would cause “severe distress.”

It added that this covers a range of conditions, many invisible, including breathing difficulties, learning disabilities, sight loss and mental health conditions. Reasons for severe distress may also include traumatic experiences of abuse and sexual violence, which the Survivors’ Trust reported affected a third of survivors.

Invisible disabilities and face coverings

West Midlands Police Force was used as an example in the letter. The Force had to apologise twice for its officers, after an asthmatic man was handcuffed and issued with a fine for failing to supply evidence of his condition, and another man was escorted out of a supermarket for having no proof of his exemption.

A Disability Rights UK survey last year found that 60% of disabled people "feared being challenged if they did not wear a mask. Even though a recent Department of Health campaign stated: "you should never challenge anyone for not wearing a face covering. Not all disabilities are visible."

Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK said: "At this time of rising panic about the virus, resulting in calls for increased enforcement, it is even more vital that all police officers understand that some disabled people are exempt from wearing face coverings, due to physical or mental conditions.

“Disabled people who can't wear face coverings already experience high levels of anxiety and have faced hostility from members of the public. It is important that police officers demonstrate understanding and uphold the exemptions set out in the regulations.

“We are urging police chiefs to clarify the legal exemptions on face covering requirements to officers, amid fears that disabled people will be disproportionately impacted by the latest crackdown on Coronavirus laws.”