Face masks to be made compulsory on public transport in England

Passengers on public transport in England will be compelled to wear face coverings from mid-June — with potential fines for non-compliance — under instructions issued by the government on Thursday to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

The announcement is a significant hardening in the approach by ministers after months of a more laissez-faire attitude.

It comes as the government expects an increase in the use of public transport in the next few weeks as economic activity starts to pick up after several months of the lockdown.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the next loosening of restrictions from June 15, with the reopening of non-essential shops, would mean more pressure on public transport.

“We are ramping up services of buses, trams and trains with substantial government funding but we still need to do more,” he added.

Mr Shapps said those who could work from home should continue to do so while those who had to travel to work should try to avoid the rush hour.

But face coverings would be mandatory for everyone using public transport from June 15 apart from a handful of exemptions such as children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties. “You can be refused travel if you don’t comply,” he said. “This will be enforced by the British Transport Police if necessary.”

Mr Shapps said people who refused to comply could be fined, although he said he hoped this would not be necessary.

Experts say that the use of scarves or homemade cloth coverings could prevent the transmission of coronavirus by the wearer through sneezes or coughs. Crucially, however, they do not protect the wearer from inhaling the virus from others.

Officials have been wary of their use because of the potential for mask wearers to become more complacent about the risk of infection, and for the danger of transmission through people touching their faces.

The government also wants anyone with visible symptoms of the virus to stay at home rather than risk spreading the disease by going out and about.

However, Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, has long called for the use of makeshift face coverings to help protect transport workers in the capital.

Mr Shapps said last month that, as of May 12, 42 Transport for London workers had died after contracting Covid-19 — and 10 people who worked on the mainline rail network.

Ministers have discouraged the general population from using medical face masks because they do not want to jeopardise the supplies of such equipment to frontline health workers.

Britain does not produce in large quantities the disposable face masks that have become common in Asia since the Sars epidemic in 2002-03 and would struggle to import more in large quantities given a surge in global demand.

As a result Mr Shapps made clear that he was recommending the use of makeshift scarves, masks and bandanas rather than professional face masks.

The World Health Organization says there is no evidence to support the use of face masks by the general population — and that they should be reserved for health workers — but their use has been increasing around the world.

Aslef, the train drivers’ trade union, described Mr Shapps’ announcement as 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,” said Mick Whelan, Aslef general secretary. “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.”

But Jim McMahon, shadow transport secretary, said the government should have changed its stance much sooner. “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.”

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