Patients without relevant medical conditions are requesting a note from their GP to exempt them from the Government’s face mask rules, doctors have warned, as their post-lockdown workload increases.
GPs said patients had attempted to get their doctor to write them a “sick note” exempting them from requirements to wear a mask on public transport and in shops.
Dr Farrah Sheikh, a GP from Cheshire, told BBC Radio 5Live: “We’ve noticed a significant increase in people who don’t have any underlying medical problems requesting these exemption notes.
“It’s not just my surgery, I know that this has been happening across the country, and it is causing issues with regard to the workload of GPs, as it’s not something that we are used to and it’s not something that we are going to be able to provide.”
Government guidelines are changing and face coverings will become compulsory in shops in the UK from July 24.
It is already compulsory to wear a mask on trains, buses and the London Underground.
The British Transport Police says more than 90 per cent of people are complying with the guidance, although fines and even arrest awaits those who refuse to cover their face.
People who have a relevant medical condition, including breathing difficulties, are exempt from the mask rules, and may identify themselves as a patient who does not need one.
The Government’s guidance says there is no need to obtain a sick note from a GP to show to officials or shop staff who question them.
Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors should be given time to deal with serious medical issues and prepare for a potential second wave of coronavirus, not to write notes for people who do not want to wear a mask.
“The College is, on balance, supportive of face coverings being mandatory in enclosed spaces, such as shops and public transport,” he said.
“However, we need to see clear guidance about the reasons that people might be exempt from wearing masks, and how they are expected to prove this, if challenged.
“It is concerning to hear reports that GPs are being asked to provide exemption notes for patients. Firstly, because it isn’t currently clear what the exemption criteria is, but also, this isn’t a good use of GPs’ time when we’re on the frontline of dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19 and preparing for a potential second wave of the virus alongside expected winter pressures.”
Dr Richard Vautrey, chairman of the GP committee at the British Medical Association, said the Government should make it clearer that people do not need a sick note to prove they do not need a mask.
“There is no need for anyone to ask their GP practice to provide letters of support for those who fall under the list of exemptions, or indeed do not,” he said. “GPs are currently seeing a rapid increase in workload as they deal with the on-going impact of the coronavirus pandemic and therefore the Government must do more to communicate this guidance more effectively to avoid people unnecessarily seeking exemption notes from their GP.”
The confusion follows a period of uncertainty around masks in shops, after Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Robert Buckland appeared to disagree whether face coverings were necessary.
Mr Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said they should not be compulsory but it was good manners to wear one.
The Government then issued guidance that will make them mandatory.
Customers can be refused entry to shops by staff if they do not wear one, but the rules are enforced by the police, who can issue on-the-spot fines of £100 to rulebreakers.
The latest rules cover supermarkets and non-essential shops such as clothing retailers, but do not apply in pubs and restaurants, where the Government says masks would be impractical.
Shop staff are not required to wear them, but it is “strongly recommended” in the guidance that they do.