Fact check: Police in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland have power to enforce face-covering laws, with Wales to follow
Posts shared online have claimed British police have no power to arrest or fine people for not wearing masks. This claim is misleading. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have rules that make face coverings mandatory by law in certain circumstances, and such a rule is to be introduced in Wales.
Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
The posts were uploaded on July 14 and 15, and have text that reads: “UK Police Commissioner has just publicly stated that the POLICE have NO POWER to arrest or fine anyone refusing to wear a mask or face covering! So the ‘RULE’ is UNLAWFUL” ( here and here ).
There is no evidence that any UK police and crime commissioners have made a recent public statement of this nature.
It was previously reported ( here ) that the police had did not have the power to arrest or fine people for not social distancing or wearing masks. Although accurate at the time of publishing, the introduction of new legislation means this is no longer the case.
In England, you must by law wear a face covering on public transport, and from July 24 when in shops and supermarkets ( here ).
People do not have to wear a face covering if they have a “legitimate reason” not to, such as those who have a disability or children under 11.
The government website confirms that police have the powers to enforce the measures, including issuing fines of 100 pounds ($127) to those who do not comply with the law. The legislation states that it is an offence to obstruct a person enforcing the regulations, and to not comply with a direction given under them ( here ).
Richard English, a barrister from Lincoln House Chambers, told Reuters that the police can arrest someone for not wearing a mask. “By virtue of regulation 6(5) a Police Constable may arrest someone who is committing or has committed an offence under the regulations provided it is necessary to do so to maintain public health or public order,” English said.
West Midlands Police reported on July 9 that it had directed 533 passengers to leave the bus, train or metro for not wearing a mask ( here ). Of those, the force said three passengers had been issued Fixed Penalty Notices, and one had been arrested. A Fixed Penalty Notice offers people a choice between paying a fine or going to court.
In Scotland, it is required by law to wear face coverings in both shops and on public transport ( here ). Exemptions apply to certain groups, including children under five and people who have a health condition that means wearing a face covering would cause pain or distress.
The Scottish government website says “police and other relevant authorities have the powers to enforce the law where people do not comply”
( here ).
It says that the police may take you home, or arrest you, if you do not follow their instructions or where they deem it necessary. It also notes that the police can issue a fixed penalty notice of 60 pounds for those who have broken the rules or have refused to follow their instructions.
In Northern Ireland, the public are legally required to wear a face covering on public transport ( here ). The government website states that if a person does not wear a face covering – and they are not under 13 and don’t have a reasonable excuse – they are committing an offence and could be fined ( here).
Legislation on the matter says that necessary action can be taken, including the power to remove a person who does not comply from the vehicle ( tinyurl.com/y2nat2om ).
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that the primary responsibility for ensuring compliance lies with transport operators but that where police become involved, enforcement will be only be used as a last resort, when all other approaches have been unsuccessful. “Whilst enforcement of face masks on public transport is not specifically ‘an arrestable offence’, police do have other powers of arrest should an individual also commit a crime,” the spokesperson said.
In Wales, it will be compulsory to wear face coverings when travelling on public transport from July 27 ( here ).
While UK police therefore do have the power to enforce rules regarding face coverings, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, a staff association, told BBC Radio 4 on July 14 ( here, here ) that the forthcoming requirement to wear a face covering in shops in England would be “nigh-on impossible for enforcement” because it would not be possible to post a police officer on every shop door.
“If a shopkeeper calls the police because someone hasn’t got a mask on, they haven’t got the power to detain them so that person can just walk away,” said the chairman, Ken Marsh.
The UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council said in a statement on July 14 that police enforcement of rules over face coverings in shops should be a “last resort” and used only when encouraging shoppers to follow the law was unsuccessful ( here ).
Partly false. Police have the power to enforce face covering laws in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will be mandatory for face coverings be worn on public transport in Wales from July 27.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .