Face coverings must be worn on public transport from 15 June, government has announced
More than 10 weeks after the pandemic took hold in the UK, Transport secretary Grant Shapps announced on Thursday that face coverings must be worn in England on buses, trams, trains, coaches, aircraft and ferries from 15 June.
The British Medical Association (BMA), having recommended in April that people should wear face coverings where it is difficult to keep two metres apart, is now calling on ministers to extend the policy beyond transport, adding that the risk from Covid-19 would be “much less” if the measures were introduced immediately rather than later in the month.
Speaking after the government on Thursday, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “These important measures should not be restricted to public transport but to all areas where social distancing is not always possible – the risk will be much less if the public adopts this now – not mid-June.”
Business secretary Alok Sharma going into self-isolation, having been tested for COVID-19 following a speech in parliament throughout which he was sweating, has revitalised a debate on whether lawmakers were ending virtual sessions prematurely.
Dr Nagpaul emphasised that the government must not only ensure the public are supplied with face coverings, but also provide advice on how to wear them correctly.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said he had been lobbying the government to introduce mandatory face coverings for “two months”, adding that he didn’t implement the measures in London for fear of confusing the government’s national message.
“My concern, and I would go so far as to say my anger, is the delay it has taken because this could mean more people having caught the virus in the community because there are some times when you simply can’t keep your social distance and this delay appears to be good for nobody,” Khan told BBC Breakfast on Thursday.
Mr Khan further added that the government was “wrong” not to make face coverings compulsory in the wider public and called for their use in crowded spaces such as shops.
“Why not err on the side of caution? Why not also make it mandatory, particularly in those confined spaces where you may inadvertently pass the virus on, where you may inadvertently catch it because someone else is pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic,” he said.
The UK had, as of Friday morning, reported more than 280,000 coronavirus cases and recorded over 39,000 fatalities – the second highest death toll in the world, only behind the US.
Trade Unions had been pushing for compulsory face coverings after dozens of transport workers died after contracting Covid-19. Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said it was a “sensible step”.
Mr Shapps said the new measure comes as passenger numbers are expected to increase when lockdown measures are eased further.
However, Mick Cash, of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said the new rules were “long overdue”.
“We fear this announcement is being driven not by safety concerns but by the premature easing of the lockdown which is swelling passenger numbers and making social distancing on transport increasingly impossible,” he said.
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said it was “another example of the government being slow to act”.
Passengers will not be permitted to travel without face coverings, which would result in a fine. However, the disabled, young children and those with breathing difficulties are to be exempt.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the current recommendation is to wear coverings in places where social distancing is more difficult. The Welsh government, however, says it is a matter of personal choice.
It has been revealed that Britain took steps to end mass testing and contact tracing of those with or suspected of having COVID-19 in March since a surge in new cases at that time would have been beyond the system’s capacity.
The effectiveness of face coverings remains heavily contested, with the World Health Organistion (WHO) insisting that there is little benefit to wearing one in public.
The World Health Organistion (WHO) currently states that only two groups of people should wear protective masks: those who are sick and showing symptoms, or those caring for people suspected of having the virus.
Medical masks are not usually recommend for general use by the public at large since they can be contaminated by other people’s coughs and sneezes or when putting them on or off, or they might offer a false sense of security.
Some health officials are of the view that this false sense of security could mean that people are less stringent with other preventative measures such as social distancing and hand hygiene.
But that, however, doesn’t mean they have no benefit at all for the general public – it is just that the scientific evidence is weak.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, Professor Anthony Costello of UCL’s Institute for Global Health said “there is no perfect evidence” on the use of face masks.
However, two recent reviews published in the Royal Society and the Lancet journal showed that face coverings can help reduce viral transmission on public transport, Prof Costello added.
“This week there’s been another review in The Lancet journal from Canada and they concluded, from imperfect evidence, but a very large review, face mask use reduces the risk of infection by about 14 per cent,” he added.
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