People in England could be fined for not wearing face coverings on public transport from 15 June, the government has said.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed on Wednesday that face coverings will become mandatory as more people return to work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He warned: “You could be refused travel if you don’t comply, and you could be fined.” He didn’t say how much the fines will be.
Shapps said the rule will be enforced by British Transport Police officers, but added: “I expect the vast majority of people won’t need to be forced into this because wearing a face covering helps protect others.
“Most people simply want to help defeat this disease.”
The date – 15 June – marks the next planned easing of the lockdown, when non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen and some pupils will return to secondary schools.
Shapps, who was speaking at the daily coronavirus press conference in Downing Street, said there will be exemptions for very young children, disabled people and people with breathing difficulties.
He added: “With more people using transport, the evidence suggests that wearing face coverings offers some – albeit limited – protection against the spread of the virus.”
Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy said he expects most passengers to comply with the requirement.
“I am not expecting a huge upsurge in railway staff having to police this,” he told the briefing.
“I am expecting sensible passengers to do their duty and look after themselves and others.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, responding to the announcement, said the government “has finally seen sense”.
“This is something I and others have been calling on ministers to do for some time,” he said, “and is in line with a large body of evidence that they can help stop the spread of coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, Shapps suggested that passengers on trains starting outside England may have to put on coverings when crossing the border.
He said: “You would need to be wearing it in England, that’s absolutely true.”
Scotland and Wales will be left to issue their own guidance, the transport secretary added.
Scotland has already issued a recommendation for people to use face coverings while food shopping and using public transport. Nicola Sturgeon said on Wednesday she is considering making it mandatory.
Top scientists respond to announcement
Dr Antonio Lazzarino, from University College London’s department of epidemiology and public health, said: “While no ad-hoc studies with a correct design have been carried out, it is now commonly accepted that face coverings provide very little protection, if any.”
However, Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, was more positive: “Face coverings aren’t 100% effective, but they’re not 0% effective either. I’ve seen evidence that a double layer of cloth is between 60% and 90% effective in stopping the spread of viral-laden droplets coming from the wearer, and also that the same mask is also 30% to 50% 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.”
Prof Sian Griffiths, who was co-chair of the Hong Kong government’s SARS inquiry, said: “The evidence for the use of face masks or face coverings has been accumulating and it is now widely accepted that, along with other social distancing measures and hygiene measures, they can contribute to decreasing the risk of transmission in the community.”
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, warned: “If this change in policy is to be successful at reducing infections, it will have to be accompanied by a major new campaign to educate 66 million people on how to properly make, put on, handle and clean their face coverings.
“Most people in the UK have no experience of wearing face coverings, and it will be much harder to get used to than washing hands more often or keeping two metres from others.”
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