Letter to museum that refused to recognise mask exemptions

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Written by: Miri
January 13, 2022
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Dear Sirs,

I am writing to you regarding a most distressing experience my friend and I endured when we attempted to visit your museum on 09/01/2022 at 2:15pm. 

My friend, Mrs. Rebekah Curtis-Haries, had booked three tickets for herself and her two children to attend the museum and take the underground tour. However, due to an unanticipated change in circumstances, her children were unable to come, so Mrs Curtis-Haries asked me to accompany her instead so that she didn't waste the tickets.

We were welcomed at the entry reception by a member of staff who verified our booking and handed us a silver coin each so that we could gain admission to the tour. We walked through the museum and to the location from which the tour commenced.

It was only at this moment, when we were about to begin the tour and were surrounded by other customers, that we were told to wear face masks. Mrs Curtis-Haries and I both hold medical exemptions from wearing face coverings, and we politely explained this to the staff.

However, we were informed by staff that our exemptions did not apply and that we were obliged to wear face coverings, or we would not be permitted to take the tour. 

As a freelance legal consultant who specialises in the new coronavirus legislation, I know that this represents an illegal act of disabilities discrimination, and is in breach of the Equality Act 2010 (formerly the Disabilities Discrimination Act 1995). I relayed this information to the members of staff present, but they were impervious and informed me that these laws did not apply on the underground tour. We insisted that they did - that they are applicable everywhere - but the staff continued to argue with us. Some members of staff became increasingly hostile towards us, and the situation felt increasingly 'charged' and unpleasant.

After several minutes of debate with the staff, a woman behind us in the queue began shouting at us, and telling us we must wear face coverings, since she was exempt and yet she was wearing one.

We politely asked her to stay out of the conversation, a sentiment which was also reiterated to her by staff, but she did not, and continued to accost us with verbal abuse, including labelling us "ignorant". Mrs Curtis-Haries and I were becoming increasingly uncomfortable and distressed at this point, as such a display of aggression from a masked stranger is deeply unnerving and we were even concerned she may become violent.

Perhaps the staff shared this concern, as it was at this point (and only at this point) that they ushered us out of the queue and out of the back of the museum, so that we could discuss the issue in private, which is what they ought to have done in the first instance, rather than subject us to the deeply humiliating and intimidating experience of being obliged to discuss our private medical issues in public and in front of aggressive strangers.

There then transpired a lengthy discussion, in which I attempted to explain the law to the members of staff, which is that mask exemptions are universally applicable and private companies cannot decide not to recognise them. If companies could pick and choose what laws they recognise and what laws they don't, then the law would be meaningless. 

One of the staff members claimed that mask-wearing was a conditional control of the museum's risk assessment for underground touring. I am aware that many risk assessments stipulate mask-wearing as a control. However, these all must have the caveat "unless exempt", because that is the law. This law exists to protect those with disabilities (including and especially those with hidden disabilities) from discrimination, and to ensure they are able to fully participate in society without being excluded from any environments on the basis of their disability. Such laws cannot be ignored or dismissed by private companies. They are binding and applicable everywhere. 

The National Coal Mining Museum would not have a sign on the door stating: "No autistics, no asthmatics, no rape survivors", because to do so would be explicitly discriminatory and therefore highly illegal. Yet all of the aforementioned groups qualify for medical mask exemptions on the basis of physical or psychological disability, and so by not recognising these exemptions, the Museum is guilty of an equal level of discrimination to as if it did have such a sign.

The law regarding face coverings is very clear: medical exemptions are applicable in all environments, regardless of whether an environment is judged to be a "higher" or "lower" risk where it comes to viral transmission. Small shops, taxis, and crowded trains and buses are all obliged to recognise mask exemptions, and the fact that somebody who is medically exempt from wearing a mask, is exempt in all situations. This includes environments that are crowded and poorly ventilated  - e.g. the London Underground. If mask exemptions are recognised on the London Underground, an environment which hosts thousands of people at a time and where any kind of social distancing is often impossible, then it is clearly absurd to imagine exemptions would not be recognised on a museum tour.  

To be clear, if a person is refused service on the basis of their mask exemption, this represents an acute form of disabilities discrimination and is against the law. The law does not make exceptions for coal mining museums, or for any other niche environments. The law is the law and cannot be disregarded on the basis of personal prejudices. The museum would not attempt to flout other laws based on internal company preferences, so cannot choose to dismiss this one either. 

It is incumbent on all companies that provide services to the general public to ensure their staff are fully trained in their obligations to refrain from illegal discriminatory behaviour and to treat those with any kind of disability (visible or otherwise) with courtesy and respect. With reference to mask wearing, if a customer is asked to wear a mask and they reply that they are exempt, the law clearly stipulates their exemption must be recognised and that they are not required to provide any "evidence" of their exemption, nor to disclose the condition on which their exemption is based.

Any attempt by a business to refuse service on the basis of a mask exemption, or to request "proof" or private medical details, is in breach of the Equality Act 2010. This offence may be punished with an individual fine of up to £5,000 and punitive damages of between £900 and £9,000, as per sections 112 (Aiding Contraventions) and section 119 (Remedies) of the Equality Act.

I asked the staff member who was arguing with me if he was familiar with this Act, but he refrained from giving me a sensible answer, leading me to conclude that he was not. After about 20 minutes of debating with two members of staff outside (most of which Mrs Curtis-Haries recorded on her phone), we acknowledged that we were not going to reach an agreement on the matter, so we would leave and put our concerns in writing. We are grateful to staff member [name] who encouraged us to do this, and who remained professional and polite throughout the exchange. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the several other members of staff who handled the situation very unprofessionally. 

We left the Museum very troubled by our ordeal, and, as such, we seek your urgent assurance that the Museum will review its policies and ensure its approach to mask-exempt individuals remains within the law, and that all staff have received adequate training as pertains to disabilities discrimination and equality and inclusion. We would also like to be furnished with a copy of the Museum's risk assessment for underground touring, to ensure that it is comprehensive and legally valid, which means assessing the risks of masking as well as the risks of viral transmission, and recognising mask exemptions.

We take our obligation to challenging disabilities discrimination extremely seriously, and if we are not able to resolve this matter directly with the Museum, then we will be obliged to take the matter further.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Miri Finch
Rebekah Curtis-Haries


REFERENCES:

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own#if-youre-not-able-to-wear-a-face-covering

2. https://www.laworfiction.com/2020/09/face-covering-some-pretend-law/

3. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents

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