I’m torn over whether the government is right to anticipate lifting almost all Covid restrictions later this month: London’s hospitality and culture industries will be counting the hours till 19 July, yet some people’s “freedom day” will be one of deepening anxiety for others, many of whom have the most to fear from a fresh wave of infections that gets out of control. One measure that would surely reduce some of those concerns would be continuing to make it compulsory to wear a face-covering on public transport.
We’ve come a long way from the early days of the pandemic, when the official view on masks was that they risked doing more harm than good. It is now firm medical opinion that they are highly effective at inhibiting infection for wearers and those around them alike. Sadiq Khan, an early champion of masks who for a long time erred on the cautious side of government advice, has become noticeably more pro-reopening of late as the vaccination programme has advanced. It is therefore even more significant that he is calling for the current masking rule to be retained.
Doing so would make sense at every level. Quite apart from the obvious direct public health benefits, keeping mask-wearing mandatory on the buses, Underground, Overground, trams and DLR would help to restore the fragile confidence of a large number of Londoners. Even as riderships keep inching upwards, London TravelWatch’s recent survey findings show that considerable nervousness about public transport remains, with nearly 60 per cent of respondents saying they won’t use public transport unless the face-covering rule is in place.
It is hard to overstate the importance of restoring public transport use. Bus and rail services are absolutely fundamental to the capital’s social and economic recovery, from the reduction of dependency on private motor vehicles, to the restoration of easy travel to see family and friends, to the revival of businesses of every kind. Renewed employer demands or expectations for workers to return to offices will be fairer to make and easier to accept if Londoners and others feel a little more protected against contracting the still-vicious virus at what is hopefully this late stage in the game. Potential visitors to the city, whose custom is so badly needed, would be similarly reassured.
Finally, and following with powerful logic from all of the above, there is the small matter of the state of the nation. Waffle all you like about “levelling up” and “pivoting” investment away from London, without the capital’s economy recovering its former strength, everyone from fishermen in Grimsby to bus manufacturers in Ballymena to those who depend on public services of every kind throughout the UK will suffer.
The potential consequences of London remaining a place its workers, inhabitants and potential visitors remain wary of travelling to and around could be calamitous, lengthening and compounding the damage Covid has already done to everyone. Combined with a continuing drive to get vaccination levels up, keeping the face mask rule for public transport and doing everything possible to persuade people to obey it could be a big step towards preventing “freedom day” become a disaster.
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