Rights groups warn “disabled people will bear the brunt” of police crackdown on mask rules

Big Brother Watch Team / January 13, 2021

  • Police officers “wrongly claiming that people with disabilities must carry paperwork”
  • 60% of disabled people “feared being challenged if they do not wear a mask”
  • A third of survivors of rape and sexual abuse experience severe distress when covering their own face or seeing the faces of others covered

Rights groups have urged 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.

Big Brother Watch, Disability Rights UK, Mencap, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Survivors Trust have written to Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council 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.
The groups described their “alarm” at reports of police officers “wrongly claiming that people with disabilities must carry paperwork”, which the groups explain has “no basis in law and risks discriminating against those with disabilities.”

There are two laws in place that require people to wear a face covering on public transport and in a ‘relevant place’ such as supermarkets, respectively. Individuals are exempt from the requirement is 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.” A survey conducted by the Survivors Trust found that a third of survivors of rape and sexual abuse experience severe distress when covering their own face or seeing the faces of others covered.

However, the groups describe “ongoing reports” of police demanding health evidence from individuals who are exempt from the face covering requirement, despite Government guidance that states no written evidence or exemption card is needed. A recent Department of Health public campaign stated, “you should never challenge anyone for not wearing a face covering. Not all disabilities are visible.”

The Government guidance has been contradicted by senior police figures such as Ken Marsh, the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation who recently told press ‘If you have a medical reason for not wearing a mask, you now have to print off a clarification that proves you have an exemption.” However, no such requirement exists in law.

West Midlands Police Force has been forced 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. More recently, a West Midlands Police officer was recorded telling an individual that even supplying evidence of a disability would not prevent officers from issuing a Fixed Penalty Notice and instead an individual would have to prove their exemption in court. After the recording drew criticism online, the force did not apologise and later issued a statement supporting the officer’s actions.

Campaigners are concerned about the impact of the latest crackdown on coronavirus laws on people with disabilities. A survey conducted by Disability Rights UK found that 60% of disabled people “feared being challenged if they did not wear a mask.” The rights groups told the police chief in the letter, “As long as this widespread confusion among police continues, we are concerned that people with disabilities will risk facing harassment, intimidation and unlawful Fixed Penalty Notices.”

Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK:

“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.“

Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch:

“There is a real risk that disabled people will bear the brunt of the Government’s push for faster and harder enforcement of its complicated rules. Police requiring people to ‘show their papers’ to prove their disability is discriminatory, wrong and has no basis in law. Likewise, when police challenge people who have survived trauma to disclose the details of their exemption in public, it can be an intrusive and terrifying ordeal. It must be the highest priority of officers to ensure that restrictions are enforced lawfully and fairly, without perpetuating discrimination.”

Kate Hardy, Communications and Campaigns Officer at The Survivors Trust:

“The Survivors Trust supports calls for the regulation of face coverings in public places to be enforced in a lawful, and sensitive manner.

We recognise that face coverings are important to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, greater clarification is needed to ensure an individual is not unlawfully asked to provide evidence of exemption.

Some survivors of sexual violence are exempt in accordance with government guidelines. For these individuals, being pressured to disclose their trauma to prove exemption could cause severe distress. An unjust, and overzealous enforcement of regulations may exacerbate anxiety and isolation for survivors.

As we all try to navigate these challenging times in the safest ways we can, we urge the police, and general public to act with compassion and kindness.”



  • Spokespeople are available for interview. Please contact info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk / 07730439257
  • The letter is available here