Police chiefs appear to be refusing to remind officers across the country that disabled people do not need to provide written proof if they are exempt from wearing face coverings during the pandemic.
The refusal of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to act comes even though national guidance for police officers on the issue fails to state that disabled people do not need to provide proof of their exemptions.
The call for NPCC to act came from Disability Rights UK (DR UK) and other campaigning organisations.
They spoke this week of growing concerns about police officers across the country telling disabled people that they must carry paperwork to prove they are exempt from wearing face coverings.
This is in direct contravention of government guidance which states that those who are exempt from the law because of their impairment do not need to offer written proof.
The Department of Health and Social Care has made clear in its guidance that “carrying an exemption card or badge is a personal choice and is not required by law”.
But DR UK, together with Big Brother Watch, Mencap, The Royal National Institute for Deaf People and The Survivors Trust, said it was vital that police officers show they understand the law.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at DR 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.”
In a letter (PDF) to Martin Hewitt, NPCC’s chair, DR UK and the other organisations say it must be “the highest priority of officers to ensure that restrictions are enforced lawfully and fairly, without perpetuating discrimination”.
The letter adds: “We are 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.”
They say that this has “no basis in law” and risks discriminating against disabled people.
Those with valid exemptions include some people with breathing difficulties, learning difficulties, sight loss, mental health conditions, and those with traumatic experiences of abuse and sexual violence.
But the letter warns that some police officers are still demanding paperwork from individuals who cannot wear a face covering.
The letter adds: “Regulations on face coverings have been in force for six months and as such police should be clear on how they should be lawfully upheld.
“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.”
They also point to a DR UK survey last year which found that three-fifths of disabled people “feared being challenged if they did not wear a mask”.
They call in the letter for NPCC to “urgently issue a clarification to police officers” about the law on exemptions.
But when Disability News Service asked NPCC if it would issue such a clarification to police forces, it appeared to suggest it would not do so, although it repeatedly refused to confirm this.
Instead, an NPCC spokesperson said in a statement: “Police officers have clear guidance on the exemptions to face coverings rules.
“Officers will have conversations with people to understand if they are exempt.
“Whilst officers will be inquisitive to establish the facts, we are clear that there is no requirement to provide medical proof of an exemption.”
He said earlier: “Officers are reminded on a daily basis of the coronavirus restrictions, including face masks, and the exemptions around them at briefings.”
But he and a colleague had pointed to two pieces of guidance for police officers, issued by NPCC and the College of Policing.
Neither of those pieces of guidance – one relating to public transport (PDF) and the other to other relevant indoor spaces (PDF) – makes any mention of the fact that disabled people do not need to provide written proof of their exemptions.
The spokesperson had not commented on this gap in the guidance by noon today (Thursday).
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