Supermarkets are facing accusations of discrimination against disabled people over the banning of shoppers not wearing masks.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to supermarket CEOs warning they could be breaking the law, while a disability rights organisation has published a template letter for compensation claims.
Following pressure from the government for tougher in-store measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a slew of major supermarkets last week announced they would ban customers not wearing masks unless medically exempt.
Equality and Human Rights Commission executive director Alastair Pringle has said the new policies risk discriminating 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 to supermarket bosses yesterday.
“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 acknowledged the “invaluable” measures supermarkets had taken to feed the nation during the pandemic, but said disabled people who could not wear masks “need to be confident that their rights, including equal access to services, will continue to be respected”.
“Any communication about face coverings must make it clear to all staff and customers that it is not compulsory for some disabled customers to wear a face covering,” it added.
“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’s letter also posed a series of questions. It asked what steps had been taken to ensure mask policies were not denying equal access to disabled people, and what had been done to train staff on the implications.
A disability rights organisation today published a template letter to claim compensation for “disability discrimination arising from your company’s reaction to me being unable to wear a face covering”.
The letter, drawn up by Kester Disability Rights, says: “I therefore seek £XXXX to settle this case along with specific information regarding how you will ensure that no further incidents can occur.” It points to Human Rights Commission guidance which puts the appropriate award at up to £9,000.
In December, a disabled woman assisted by Kester Disability Rights was paid £7,000 in compensation by a service provider who refused her access because she was unable to wear a face mask, according to the organisation.
A post on the organisation’s website from 16 January says: “We are inundated by an avalanche of enquiries from people discriminated against for being unable to wear face coverings. Please bear with us while we work through the back-log.”
Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Aldi all said last week that shoppers without masks would be refused entry unless exempt. The Co-op and Iceland rejected introducing similar policies, the latter citing a “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.”
Government face covering guidance includes exemption badges and cards which anyone can download and print. The guidance says providing such evidence is “a personal choice and is not necessary in law”.
A source at one of the supermarkets to ban non-mask wearers told The Grocer: “The customer’s word is taken over exemption. It’s a very grey area.”