Concerns have been raised over a significant fall in mask-wearing on public transport after the government dropped the requirement earlier this summer.
New figures from Network Rail have shown that just 20 per cent of rail passengers now wear masks on their journeys, compared to 80 per cent before July 19, when mask-wearing was mandatory.
Mask-wearing continues to be compulsory on Transport for London (TfL) services such as on the London Underground and the capital’s buses as a ‘condition of carriage’. TfL says it has more than 400 compliance officers on networks across London who may refuse travel to non-exempt passengers who fail to wear masks.
But Unite and others have warned that enforcing mask-wearing requirements remains a problem in London, while in the rest of England, mask-wearing is not compulsory at all on public transport and puts both passengers and drivers at risk.
London mayor Sadiq Khan voiced frustration over the difficulty of enforcing mask-wearing on TfL networks and called on the government to reintroduce mandatory masks on public transport.
“We continue to lobby the government to either bring back the national requirement for wearing face masks so we can use police and there is consistency, or help us pass a bylaw so we can use British Transport Police officers,” he said.
“To give an idea of the scale of the challenge: we have 272 stations and 9,000 buses and we have 400 enforcement officers,” Khan added.
Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said Unite is likewise calling on the government to once again make mask-wearing mandatory but he also agreed that enforcement is a major issue.
“Unite campaigned very hard to secure mandatory mask-wearing on buses, which thanks to our efforts became a reality,” Morton told UniteLive. “Although we achieved this, monitoring has been an on-going issue, with the bus companies failing to take action to enforce the mandate.
“Despite this, there was strong compliance from the public when they were mandatory,” he added.
Morton went on to note that he believed there was still a significant number of people – at least half in many instances – who continue to wear masks on buses even after the mandate has been dropped.
“We very much welcome and thank members of the public who continue to take the safety of their fellow passengers and bus drivers seriously,” he said. “It must also be noted that at least when bus drivers are in their cabs, because they are sealed and because there are other protective measures in place, they remain safe.”
But Morton said safety concerns arise when bus drivers go for toilet or meal breaks, since they have to walk through their buses which may be contaminated by the Covid-19 virus which often lingers in the air in confined spaces.
“This is when bus drivers can come into danger,” he noted. “Our bus worker members have also highlighted that when their shifts end and they go back to the depot to finish their duties, people are walking around without masks and there is no social distancing whatsoever.
“So not only are bus workers put at risk on their routes but when they finish them as well. This is why we are calling for mandatory mask-wearing to be reintroduced on public transport, and for bus companies to enforce this mandate themselves, as well as to ensure mask-wearing and social distancing both on buses and in depots. We continue to push the bus companies to take responsibility, which so far they have shamelessly shirked.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, it is estimated that more than 100 bus drivers have died after contracting coronavirus. In March this year, a study found that in London alone, bus drivers were three times more likely to die from coronavirus than the general public.
Unite encourages everyone to continue wearing masks in public spaces, including public transport, for theirs and others’ safety.
By Hajera Blagg