Disabled people could “bear the brunt” of a police crackdown on wearing face masks under coronavirus laws, human rights campaigners have warned.
A group of organisations and charities has raised concerns with Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), amid reports that officers have been “wrongly claiming” people with disabilities must carry paperwork to prove their exemption to the rule.
Big Brother Watch, Disability Rights UK, Mencap, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Survivors Trust have urged police chiefs to clarify the legal exemptions on face covering requirements because they fear disabled people and sexual abuse victims may be disproportionately affected by the latest crackdown on coronavirus laws in a bid to curb infection rates.
A letter to Mr Hewitt, signed by the bosses of each organisation, said there was “widespread confusion” among police officers and called for assurances that restrictions are being enforced lawfully and fairly without discrimination.
The letter said: “We are concerned that those who are unable to wear face coverings will be disproportionately impacted by the increased emphasis on enforcement of the regulations.
“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.
“This has no basis in law and risks discriminating against those with disabilities.
“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.”
According to Government guidance, people who cannot “put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability” do not need to wear a face covering, among other exemptions.
This also includes anyone who feels that wearing one would cause “severe distress”.
People with an age, health or disability exemption “do not routinely need to show any written evidence of this” and “do not need to show an exemption card”, the guidance says, adding: “Carrying an exemption card or badge is a personal choice and is not required by law.”
It also asks people to be “mindful and respectful of such circumstances”, highlighting that the reasons for this may not be visible to others.
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, added: “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.”
A spokeswoman for the NPCC said: “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.”