Unite secures win as face coverings made mandatory on public transport

Unite proclaims mandatory face coverings victory for transport workers’ safety and mental health

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Unite has proclaimed victory for bus drivers and the travelling public after the government announced on Thursday (June 4) that all people traveling on public transport in England will be required to wear face coverings from June 15.

Unite made the call for mandatory face coverings on public transport last month and has been actively lobbying the government to introduce the measure to protect passengers and bus workers – and above all to give greater confidence to bus drivers and other transport workers amid a pandemic that’s put them in the firing line.  

At least 33 bus workers have died after contracting Covid-19 in London alone, with more deaths reported outside the capital as well. A report out from the ONS found that male bus drivers face a much higher risk of death than males in other occupations.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps made the announcement Thursday evening (June 4) during the government’s press briefing. He said that non-compliance with the new rule could result in fines, and that young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties would be exempt.

British Transport Police will help enforce the new face covering rule, which applies to all modes of public transport, from trains to tubes, buses to trams, as well as coaches, aircraft and ferries.

Speaking at the press briefing, Shapps said, “The evidence suggests that wearing face coverings offers some, albeit limited, protection against the spread of the virus.”

“As passenger numbers increase, we need to ensure every precaution is taken.”

The government noted that passengers should wear face coverings, as opposed to medical-grade masks which are in short supply and should be reserved for clinical settings. The face coverings can be as simple as a bandana that covers people’s mouths and noses.

Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton highlighted that despite a lack of clear-cut scientific evidence showing face coverings categorically protect people from the virus, any protective effect, however small, was better than none.

What’s more, he said, the measure can go a long way in supporting bus workers’ mental health.  

“Bus drivers have to play a number of roles in their jobs in addition to driving their buses,” Morton told UniteLIVE. “They have to be psychologists, in managing passenger behavior; they have to be accountants as they handle passenger fares to the tune of thousands of pounds a day; and they have to be health and safety experts to ensure the safety of up to 80 passengers at any one time.”

“In order to carry out their jobs, they have to have an absolutely clear mind, or else they are a danger to themselves, to passengers and to others on the road. Throughout this pandemic bus workers have understandably been extremely anxious that they will catch the virus, or else bring it home to their families. Dozens of their colleagues have died from the virus, and every day for them is an emotional battle as they turn on their engines wondering if they will be next.”

“If mandatory face coverings can offer even the slightest bit of confidence to bus and other transport workers, a daily reminder to them that people care; that the government is taking definitive steps to protect them – then it is a worthwhile measure.”

Morton went on to say that with no imminent cure for Covid-19 or a vaccine becoming available, the wearing of face coverings on public transport “should become the new normal”.

“In the short-term, the government should follow the lead of various parts of Yorkshire and London and impose a reduced maximum capacity on all buses to further reduce the danger of infection,” he added.

 “Unite is committed to working with the government and bus operators to ensure that, as infection rates fall and the lockdown further eases and bus usage increases, passengers and drivers are not placed at risk.”

By Hajera Blagg

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