Why you might have to still wear face masks on public transport – despite what Boris Johnson says

·6 min read
People wearing face masks among crowds of pedestrians in Covent Garden, London. Rumours were abound in the Sunday newspapers that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation this week on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called
People wearing face masks among crowds of pedestrians in Covent Garden, London. (PA)

Boris Johnson has confirmed he will ease nearly all remaining COVID legal restrictions – including face masks in indoor public spaces – in England.

So-called “freedom day” is expected on 19 July, with a decision on whether or not to go ahead being taken a week earlier.

All remaining businesses will be able to reopen; the government will no longer instruct people to work from home; the “one metre plus” rule on social distancing will be broadly lifted; and there will be no limits on social contact.

The PM also said the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be lifted, although guidance will suggest people might choose to do so in “enclosed and crowded places”.

Here we look at what health experts, politicians, unions and public transport operators have said about whether the policy could continue to be enforced.

What Labour and city mayors have said

Sir Keir Starmer said the PM's proposed relaxation of face covering measures was “reckless” and that mask-wearing should remain.

The Labour leader said: “Lifting all protections in one go when the infection rate is going up is reckless. A balanced approach, a proper plan, would say keep key protections.

“One of them would be masks in enclosed places and on public transport – that’s a common sense position. More ventilation, that’s happening in other countries, is absolutely essential and proper payments for those that need to self-isolate.”

The mayors of London, Manchester and Liverpool have all called for further mask-wearing on public transport.

Sadiq Khan hinted that face masks could remain a mandatory rule on public transport in London.

People wearing face masks watch a street entertainer in Covent Garden, London. Rumours were abound in the Sunday newspapers that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation this week on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called
Rumours were abound in the Sunday newspapers that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation this week on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called "Freedom Day". (PA)

A spokeswoman for the London mayor said: “On the continuing wearing of face masks, it is important that we continue to follow the science around the extent to which they limit transmission on transport and in busy indoor spaces.

“Evidence shows that the wearing of face masks gives many Londoners the confidence that they can travel safely on public transport.

“People feeling confident they can travel on our Tubes, buses and trains as they get busier will be a vital part of encouraging more people into central London as restrictions are lifted further, and it is something that we will continue to look at closely.”

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham criticised the government’s plans to drop the requirement, tweeting that it will likely cause “real problems for some people who are dependent on it".

Watch: Should face masks be worn past Freedom Day on 19 July?

Burnham tweeted: “Those more vulnerable to infection or anxious about it will be put in a very unfair position. Rethink needed?”

He also urged the government to keep the rule in force in “locations where people don’t have a choice to go”, such as public transport and supermarkets.

However, he did tell BBC Radio 4’s World At One that he would not make them mandatory on Manchester’s tram network as “I just don’t think it would work”.

“If the government comes up with a national ruling I just don’t see how we would be able to enforce it at our level,” he said.

Labour Liverpool city region metro mayor Steve Rotherham suggested people should put up with the "minor inconvenience" of mask-wearing for a bit longer.

"I understand people not wanting to wear masks but it's a minor inconvenience that we know helps to slow the spread of the Coronavirus – and gives people a level of reassurance, especially the vulnerable," he said in a social media post.

"You wouldn't want your surgeon to take their mask off would you?"

What industry bodies have said

Several industry bodies have also called for the face mask rule to remain in place to protect workers.

Trade union Unite, which represents tens of thousands of public transport workers, criticised the government’s plan to scrap the requirement.

 A woman wearing a mask walks past a Tesco Express store in London.
In recent weeks, the number of confirmed covid cases in the UK has been on the rise, and has reached the highest ever since the re-opening of economic activities. Among the surge is the emergence of a new variant of the COVID 19 virus, known as Indian variant or Delta variant. While people are dining out and engaging in everyday activities as if COVID is over, restaurants and members of the police are still seen to be maintaining social distancing measures to mitigate the latest surge caused by increased contact as the city picks up in speed. (Photo by Belinda Jiao / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A woman wearing a mask walks past a Tesco Express store in London. (PA)

The union’s national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said: “To end the requirement to wear masks on public transport would be an act of gross negligence by the Government.

“Rates of infection are continuing to increase and not only does mask-wearing reduce transmissions, but it also helps provide reassurance to drivers and to passengers who are nervous about using public transport.

“The idea of personal responsibility and hoping that people will wear masks is absolutely ridiculous.”

Industry body the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said that while “wearing a mask helps protect others”, any relaxation of the rules around their use indoors must apply to trains.

An RDG spokesman said: “Trains should be treated consistently with other indoor settings when it comes to the removal or ongoing use of restrictions.

“Travelling by train is low risk and carriages are well ventilated with air regularly refreshed either by air conditioning systems, or by doors and windows being opened, so any decision to leave public transport behind other parts of the economy would need to be based on the science.

“Of course, train companies will continue with extra cleaning and better information about how busy services are, and given that wearing a mask helps protect others, we would also support people who wished to continue wearing one in future if it becomes voluntary.”

What medical experts have said

Some medical experts and scientists have said they may continue to wear masks in crowded environments.

People wearing face masks watch a street entertainer in Covent Garden, London. Rumours were abound in the Sunday newspapers that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation this week on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called
People wearing face masks watch a street entertainer in Covent Garden, London. (PA)

Meanwhile, many high-profile doctors have called for the use of face masks and social distancing to remain in place.

The British Medical Association council's chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it wants "targeted measures" to help prevent virus transmission, including face masks in public areas such as shops and public transport

Medical director of NHS England Professor Stephen Powis said he "might choose" to continue to wear a face-covering "in a crowded, indoor environment".

Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “I probably will [wear masks] in some settings, but it's got to be remembered that the mask-wearing is primarily to stop transmission rather than acquisition, so it's people that have got symptoms, who should really be staying at home, that are going to be the risk here, rather than the people walking around who are double-vaccinated – they're far less at risk.”

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School, said face masks should still be worn in indoor settings.

She tweeted: "If it avoids rising cases, people getting ill, another lockdown and helps businesses stay open, doesn't it make sense to keep face masks for indoor settings like shops and public transport, until we understand more about vaccine effectiveness in stopping transmission?”

Watch: Face masks set to become 'personal choice'– but some medical experts say they will still wear them

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting