All passengers must wear face masks on public transport from 15 June. Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced the new regulations during a television briefing on Coronavirus.
He said: “As passenger numbers increase, and we expect this trend to continue, we need to ensure every precaution is taken, on buses, trains, aircraft and ferries. With more people using transport, the evidence suggests that wearing a face covering offers some – albeit limited – protection against the spread of the virus.
“A face covering helps protect our fellow passengers. It is something that we can each do to help each other. And whilst it also remains true that measures like maintaining social distance and washing your hands remain most critical, we also know that, on public transport, keeping two metres apart is not always possible, all of the time. Indeed, the guidance explicitly recognises this fact.”
He warned that wearing of a mask would be a condition of travel, so passengers will be refused travel if they don’t comply and could be fined.
“Alongside transport operators, this will be enforced by the British Transport Police, as necessary,” he stated. “But I expect the vast majority of people won’t need to be forced into this, because wearing a face-covering helps to protect others, and most people simply want to help defeat this disease.”
There will be exceptions to the rule for very young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties.
“Of course, frontline staff – those in contact with passengers, doing such an important job at this crucial time – will also need to wear face coverings,” he continued. “In the coming days, the government will work with unions, who have been supportive for which I am grateful, transport operators and police to ensure they have the supplies they need to be safe and provide reassurance to the public.”
Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy was present at the briefing. When asked whether railway staff would be expected to police this, he recalled the time when he was Transport Commissioner for London and alcohol was banned on the tube. “It was a matter of great controversy when the alcohol ban was introduced, but actually it went in without any difficulty at all,” he answered.
“I’m not expecting a huge upsurge in railway staff having to police this,” he continued. “I’m expecting sensible passengers to do their duty and look after themselves and others.”
The move to introduce face coverings was welcomed by many in the rail industry and in government. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “I’m pleased that our lobbying has paid off and the government has finally seen sense and made it mandatory for people to wear face coverings on public transport. This is something I and others have been calling on ministers to do for some time and is in line with a large body of evidence that they can help stop the spread of coronavirus.
“I encourage anyone travelling on public transport, or anywhere you can’t keep a safe two-metre distance, to wear a face covering, but from Monday 15 June, everyone must wear a covering over their nose and mouth for the entirety of any journeys made using the public transport network. This will be mandatory and will help everyone be safer.”
Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, added: “Wearing face coverings on trains will help to ensure that those who need to travel by rail can do so with confidence. Greater use of face coverings will boost the other measures we are putting in place to keep people safe, like more thorough cleaning, improved information on potential crowding and one-way systems at busier stations.”
For the trade unions, Manuel Cortes of TSSA supported the decision: “This is a welcome step by the government which will lower the transmission of this deadly virus among those using public transport in the weeks and months to come.
“However, it’s also important to stress that people must not interpret the use of a face covering as a licence to breach social distancing measures as lockdown eases. A physical distance of at least two metres between passengers and/or staff must be maintained at all times, as this remains the most effective measure to control the spread of Covid-19.
“Our union has been pressing Ministers and transport bosses for further action to protect our members on the front line, as face coverings are no substitute for protective equipment. Sadly, some bosses have yet to issue the visors and other personal protective equipment that our members require.”
However, RMT’s Mick Cash was less enthusiastic. “There is a real danger that the Government and the Rail Delivery Group are sending out a signal that, as long as you cover your face, you are safe to head back onto the tubes and trains, regardless of whether you are an essential worker making an essential journey,” he said. “That risks a surge in passengers as we saw last weekend with the principles of social distancing blown apart with huge risks to staff and passengers alike.
“It’s also clear that the government and industry bosses are expecting our members to police this policy. That will put over-stretched rail workers right in the front line once again and will leave them at risk of being abused, assaulted and spat at by aggressive passengers refusing to comply. This policy must be properly risk assessed with staff fully protected.
“If this policy had been introduced sooner and the principle of covering your face established earlier some of these risks our members now face could have been avoided. The Government need to get a grip rather than winging it with these important policy announcements.”
On behalf of passengers, Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, commented: “People thinking of returning to public transport have told us they want face coverings to be used by all passengers. The government’s decision will provide welcome clarity and will boost pressure on others to cover up.
“Passengers will now need clear information on where best to find a face covering, if they will be handed out at stations and if they will be turned away if they aren’t wearing one.”
This new regulation only applies to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have to decide whether to follow suit.