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Coronavirus Pandemic

UK supermarkets teeter on discrimination against disabled customers over mandatory face masks

An elderly lady wearing a face shield sitting on a mobility scooter outside a supermarket during the coronavirus pandemic, Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK
Photo: Dreamstime

Due to calls for tougher COVID-19 precautions from the government, many major U.K. supermarkets announced they would ban customers not wearing face masks, unless medically exempt.

Alastair Pringle, Equality and Human Rights Commission Executive Director, wrote letters to supermarket CEOs, warning that they may be breaking the law. Pringle claims the new directive risks discrimination against “disabled customers who cannot wear face masks for a range of disability-related reasons, such as people with autism or respiratory conditions”.

“Following recent media reports regarding the wearing of masks in supermarkets, I write to remind you that your stores are subject to Equality Act legislation which includes protecting the rights of disabled people,” he wrote.

“Policies which require mandatory mask wearing and/or the production of proof to justify an exemption from mask wearing, put retailers at risk of discriminating against disabled people. We have also received reports from disabled people who are concerned about being harassed by other customers who do not understand the law in this area.”

The letter added that it should be made clear to staff and customers that masks are not mandatory for some disabled people. “There is no legal obligation for disabled customers to prove their exemption with identification and they should not be routinely asked to show any evidence,” Pringle wrote.

People with medical exemptions can download and print government exemption badges and cards. The government says providing such evidence is “a personal choice and is not necessary in law.”

Disability rights organization, Kester Disability Rights, produced a template letter for disabled people to claim compensation from the supermarkets for “disability discrimination arising from your company’s reaction to me being unable to wear a face covering”. It reads, “I therefore seek £XXXX to settle this case along with specific information regarding how you will ensure that no further incidents can occur.” The template letter refers to advice from the Human Rights Commission which puts the appropriate compensation at up to £9,000.

Assisted by this same organization, a disabled woman was paid £7,000 in compensation by a service provider who refused her access because she was unable to wear a face mask.

A post on the Kester Disability Rights’ website from January 16, 2021, stated that they are working through a backlog due to the overwhelming enquires from people who feel they have been discriminated against for being unable to wear face coverings.

Supermarkets that are enforcing the ‘no-mask’ ban include Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, Morrisons and Aldi. The Co-op and Iceland refused introducing similar policies due to the “rising tide of abuse and violence being directed at our store colleagues”. Iceland MD Richard Walker wrote on Twitter: “Despite statements made by some supermarkets, banning non-mask wearers isn’t realistic while there are medical exemptions: no one is demanding proof of these. We ask all customers to wear masks but I will not put our staff at risk trying to refuse entry to aggressive refuseniks.”

A source at one of the supermarkets banning non-mask wearers said, “The customer’s word is taken over exemption. It’s a very grey area.”

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