Face covering fines 'will make little difference' if rules not enforced

Unite calls for stricter enforcement of face covering rules as new figures show only 400 passengers fined

Reading time: 5 min

In the last three months, only about 400 fines were issued to people for failing to wear face coverings on public transport, figures obtained by Unite have revealed.

The small number of fines demonstrate that there is a worrying lack of enforcement of the rules, which has put bus drivers and the travelling public alike at risk.

On Tuesday (September 22), prime minister Boris Johnson announced a series of increased restrictions and measures to combat a spike in Covid-19 cases, including hiking the fine for failing to wear masks on public transport and in shops from £100 for the first offence to £200.

But Unite, which represents about 70,000 bus drivers, has today highlighted that given the current enforcement regime where a ‘vanishingly small’ number of fines have been handed out, any increase in the fine will fail to ensure compliance with the rules.

The figures obtained by Unite from the National Police Chief’s Council show that in the last three months, only 368 fines or fixed penalty notices were doled out to people in London failing to wear masks on public transport, declining to only 38 fines outside the capital in England and Wales over the same time period.

Presently, only police officers can enforce the rules or issue fines, but Unite has been pushing for bus companies to utilise their own enforcement officers, or to work with government-appointed Covid marshals to prevent passengers without face coverings from boarding buses.

UniteLIVE has highlighted throughout the pandemic how in practice, the onus has often fallen on bus drivers themselves to ask passengers to comply with the face covering requirements which came into force on June 15 on public transport. This has led to many drivers being abused and in some cases even assaulted.

In Bournemouth, a man who was not wearing a face covering forced himself on a bus despite the driver attempting to refuse him entry. When the bus driver tried to get the man off the bus, the assailant hit the bus driver with a beer can and pushed him on the floor. The bus driver sustained a cut to his head and required hospital treatment.

One bus driver speaking to BBC Radio Manchester explained the reaction he often gets when he reminds passengers to wear masks.

“A lot of people, when asked, will pull one out of their pockets and be quite civil,” he said. “And then there’s a percentage of people who instantly become aggressive, as if you’ve said something rude or insensitive to them, they instantly just become aggressive and confrontational.

“I had a guy wish death upon my children because he didn’t have a face mask and I explained to him he couldn’t use public transport without one.”

Unite has consistently advised its bus drivers not to get involved when passengers refuse to wear masks to avoid conflict and the possibility of verbal and physical attacks.

Commenting on the latest revelations of a very small number of fines issued, Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said, “Penalties for those who refuse to comply with the law on face coverings on public transport are vanishingly rare.

“So increasing the fines for not wearing a face covering will make little difference unless they are alongside stricter and more rigorous enforcement,” he added.

“While the vast majority of passengers are complying with the rules a significant minority are not.

“The police need to make it clear whether they have the capacity to enforce the regulations because if not we need another approach and fast.

“It is no good introducing further restrictions in public life if the government has not also resourced their enforcement,” Morton went on to say.

“We are also calling on bus operators to work with the government to ensure that passengers refusing to wear face coverings cannot board buses. The bus operators have to be proactive in protecting their workforce and passengers and not pass the buck on this vitally important matter of public health.

“What needs to be totally understood is that bus drivers cannot and will not enforce the wearing of masks. Their job is to get passengers to their destination safely, not to police public health.”

By Hajera Blagg

Related Articles