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Vulnerable may not go out in public if masks enforced in Northern Ireland, charity says


Concerns have been raised over face mask exemptions being removed. PA

Concerns have been raised over face mask exemptions being removed. PA


Concerns have been raised over face mask exemptions being removed. PA

Vulnerable people may decide not to go out in public if further measures aren’t put in place to support them when regulations around mask-wearing are strengthened, a charity supporting people with learning disabilities has said.

It comes as the Northern Ireland Executive strengthens laws on face masks to to remove some exemptions from December 27, including the removal of an exemption where wearing a face mask causes severe stress. There will be a grace period until January 7 before this can be enforced.

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The onus of proving an exemption on medical grounds will also be on the individual.

But the Compass Advocacy Network (CAN) told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme that removing some face mask exemptions could cause "immense anxiety" for some individuals. 

Chief executive of CAN Janet Schofield said further measures should be put in place.

"If someone has extreme anxiety about wearing the mask or has an underlying heart problem or a condition that's going to impact them then that's going to be really problematic," she said.

"If you have a learning disability and you're struggling to understand, plus this pent-up emotion and fear of what will happen with the mask and going out into the public.

"Now they have to go into the public and explain why they're not wearing a mask and possibly see the result of that and be pulled up for not wearing the mask."

Sunflower lanyards, which were introduced for people with a hidden disability, had been abused by people obtaining fake lanyards online, she said.

It is currently a legal requirement in Northern Ireland for people to wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and indoor attractions unless they are exempt.

The charity also supports people with autism and mental health issues and Ms Schofield said "a number of individuals are really going to struggle with this".

"From the start the messaging was very problematic for our people - they didn't understand a lot of the stuff about Covid," Ms Schofield said.

She said she hopes the Executive will revisit the rules around mask enforcement before they come into effect.

A spokesperson for the Executive said that people who have powers to enforce the requirement to wear a face covering include "a constable, a person designated by the Department of Health, and operators of a passenger transport service and their employees and agents".

They said their decision to remove the wording "or within severe distress" from the face coverings legislation was taken to remove "any ambiguity from the reasonable excuse provision".

"The reference to the Disability Discrimination Act remains in place," the said.

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