Face coverings will be mandatory on public transport in England after 15 June, government announces

Exemptions for young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties, says transport secretary Grant Shapps

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 04 June 2020 18:15 BST
Face coverings will be mandatory on public transport after 15 June, government announces

Wearing face coverings is to be compulsory on public transport in England from 15 June, with fines for those who refuse, transport secretary Grant Shapps has announced.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Shapps said the move was designed to prevent an upsurge in coronavirus infections as the country moves to the next stage of lockdown relaxation, with non-essential shops allowed to reopen.

Mr Shapps said wearing a face covering would be made a “condition of travel” on public transport, allowing passengers to be refused carriage if they do not comply, with the British Transport Police called in to deal with those resisting the rule where necessary. Face coverings are not currently included in the Health Protection Regulations which give the police legal power to take action over lockdown breaches.

Mr Shapps said: “As of Monday 15 June face coverings will become mandatory on public transport.

“That doesn’t mean surgical masks, which we must keep for clinical settings. It means the kind of face covering you can easily make at home. There will be exemptions to these rules for very young children, for disabled people and those with breathing difficulties.”

He added: “We need to ensure every precaution is taken on buses, trains, aircraft, and on ferries.”

“With more people using transport, the evidence suggests wearing face coverings offers some – albeit limited – protection against the spread for the virus.”

Frontline staff such as bus drivers will also be required to wear face coverings, and Mr Shapps said the government will work with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to try to make the change nationwide.

The announcement was welcomed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, who has long lobbied for mandatory face coverings on the capital’s Underground system.

“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,” said Mr Khan.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, agreed: “This is a sensible step. We have been working closely with the government to ensure that agreed increases in services on Britain’s train and Tube network is done in a safe and controlled manner, to help spread the loading, and maintain social distancing for the safety of passengers and staff.

“The instruction to wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus will ease the concerns of people travelling, and working, on the transport network.”

In April the minister had attempted to ward members of the public off booking a holiday by saying he himself would not be doing so because of the trajectory of the coronavirus
In April the minister had attempted to ward members of the public off booking a holiday by saying he himself would not be doing so because of the trajectory of the coronavirus (AFP/Getty)

However, scientists are divided over the value of homemade face coverings.

Dr Antonio Lazzarino, of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, warned that their use might encourage people to wash hands less and to make more use of buses and trains, where face coverings will offer no protection against them being infected by touching handrails contaminated with the virus.

“It is now commonly accepted that face coverings provide very little protection, if any. But one clear, logical, widely accepted side effect is that face coverings may give an excuse to easing other more important measures,” said Dr Lazzarino.

“Will more people use the Tube or buses because they will feel more secure given that everybody wears a face covering? This will increase the risk of transmission.

“Will people be able not to contaminate their hands and the handrails by not touching their face coverings and not touching the handrails while standing inside buses and trains? This seems to be impossible to me. Face coverings can therefore be a vehicle of infection, rather than a barrier.”

But health care professor Prof Trish Greenhalgh of the University of Oxford said: “Face coverings aren’t 100 per cent effective, but they’re not zero per cent effective either.

“I’ve seen evidence that a double layer of cloth is between 60 and 90 per cent effective in stopping the spread of viral-laden droplets coming from the wearer, and also that the same mask is also 30-50 per cent effective at stopping virus particles getting to the wearer. You can argue about the exact percentages, but overall, if everyone wears a face covering when they’re at close quarters, transmission is going to go down dramatically.”

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: “This policy will add more burden on the general public to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This is much more complicated than ‘wash your hands for 20 seconds’ or ‘stay at home’. We are asking the whole population of Britain, with no prior experience of mask-wearing, to overnight become competent makers, wearers, and maintainers of PPE.

“I have seen no new evidence to suggest why the government is reversing its previous policy, and ignoring its previous scientific guidance and the guidance of the WHO. I’m left wondering if this is a political decision, rather than one based on science.”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “This is just another example of the government being slow to act. Two months ago, Labour immediately backed the Mayor of London’s call for face coverings on public transport to be compulsory. Yet only now Tory ministers are acting.

“Two months after first raising this with government we are still yet to hear whether drivers will be issued with gloves, masks, and other PPE items as standard, what specification this PPE should be and, if there isn’t sufficient PPE, whether buses should still run.

“We can’t go on like this. We need a comprehensive transport plan to get our public transport moving, to protect staff and to protect passengers.”

Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy said he expected most passengers to comply with the requirement to wear face coverings.

“I am not expecting a huge upsurge in railway staff having to police this,” he told the No 10 briefing. “I am expecting sensible passengers to do their duty and look after themselves and others.”

Mr Shapps said that if people refused to comply they could be fined under new provisions in the national rail conditions of travel and the public service vehicle regulations for buses.

“It is a condition of travel. You cannot travel unless you are wearing a face covering,” he said. “There will also be other powers so it could ultimately lead to fines. I very much hope we won’t be in that situation.”

He said he did not expect enforcement action to be required on a regular basis, saying: “I expect the vast majority of people won’t need to be forced into this, because wearing a face covering helps protect others and most people simply want to help defeat this disease.”

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