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Updated guidance from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirms that a ‘recommendation for universal use of face masks for staff and face masks/coverings for all patients/visitors’ will remain part of IPC advice for health and care providers through winter.

The advice says physical distancing requirements should also remain in place, with 1m distancing as a minimum and ‘increasing whenever feasible to 2m’.

In settings where patients with suspected or confirmed respiratory infection are being managed, minimum recommended distancing remains at 2m.

Face covering

A recommendation to wear masks or face coverings in healthcare settings has remained in place under IPC rules despite the lifting of COVID-19 regulations in summer last year.

Despite face coverings no longer being a legal requirement, GP practices have been able to continue to ask non-exempt patients to wear a face covering and to maintain social distancing.

The GMC told GPonline last year that there was ‘nothing to prevent’ GP practices asking patients and staff to wear masks – and some GPs have interpreted the IPC advice as empowering practices to tell patients who refuse to wear face coverings that they will be seen remotely if it is clinically safe to do so.

Medico-legal advice

Medico-legal organisation the MDU has advised practices to try offering masks to patients who choose not to wear one – and to consider whether a face-to-face appointment is essential for patients who continue to refuse to wear a mask.

Writing for GPonline, MDU medico-legal adviser Kathryn Leask said practices could take steps such as maintaining social distancing as far as possible, use hand hygiene measures and wearing appropriate PPE where patients refuse face coverings.

However, she warned that healthcare providers cannot enforce mask wearing by patients and that ‘GPs should be cautious about declining to provide necessary care to a patient on the basis of their decision not to wear a mask’.

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