Return of mandatory face coverings broadly welcomed, but with calls for measure to be properly policed
Transport operators, unions and passenger groups have backed the return of mandatory mask-wearing on buses and trains in England, but raised concerns about enforcement.
Passengers will need to wear masks on public transport across the country from Tuesday under measures to combat the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, bringing England back into line with the rest of the UK.
Face coverings were made obligatory on public transport in England in June 2020, with fixed penalties of £100 for non-wearers. After the legal requirement ended last July, ministers said masks were “expected” in crowded transport settings. Transport for London said coverings remained compulsory for travel, but there was little deterrent against not wearing them.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said most cases of non-compliance across all settings were resolved by staff in the first instance. It said businesses and local authorities needed to remind the public of the rules, and enforcement should not necessarily mean police involvement.
Unions, however, said the government needed to ensure there was credible enforcement and that bus drivers and rail staff were not asked to force passengers to wear masks.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus and coach industry, said operators would be communicating to passengers that masks were now a legal requirement again, and “reminding them of their responsibility to comply with this change of approach, which the police will enforce”.
“As they have throughout the pandemic, we expect passengers will work with operators to ensure passengers can travel safely,” it said.
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the rail industry, said: “While we know the vast majority of people will want to do the right thing, we’ll be working with British Transport Police who will encourage and enforce the measures.”
London TravelWatch said research showed other people wearing face coverings was a key factor in making people feel safe about using buses, trains and the tube. Emma Gibson, director of the independent watchdog, said: “Making them a requirement on all public transport again will be reassuring for many people but it will have to be properly enforced to give out the signal that the rules have changed.”
Unions said they backed the measures for public health, but were telling their members only the operator and police were responsible for making people comply. Unite’s national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton, said: “The government’s previous inconsistent messaging on face mask wearing is almost certainly going to result in a high degree of non-compliance. Unite’s advice to bus drivers is clear: it is not their role to enforce mask wearing, their responsibility is to safely drive and operate the bus.”
The general secretary of the RMT, Mick Lynch, said there were “major issues about enforcement – and its our members left in the frontline with angry passengers who refuse to comply. The government must make the resources available to properly police this”.
Owen Weatherill, of the NPCC, said forces would continue to enforce Covid rules where necessary. “We will support transport and retail staff in ensuring people wear face coverings in line with the regulations,” he said. “We will work closely with businesses and will continue to respond to incidents where individuals are violent or abusive towards staff or members of the public.”
He said forces would increase officer visibility where possible near transport hubs: “If officers encounter individuals not wearing a face covering on public transport or in shops, they will engage with them, explain the risks and encourage them to comply with the new rules.”
Police issued 626 fixed penalty notices to people in England and Wales for not wearing masks on public transport during the 12 to 13 months when doing so mandatory, and 3,123 fines in other settings. The majority were issued to white men, with police action peaking in February this year.
The impending rule change, announced by Boris Johnson on Saturday but yet to be officially clarified, will bring England’s rules back in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where wearing masks on public transport has remained mandatory.