Update, 15 June 2020: On 12 June, the government announced that the face-covering rule “will be made under the Public Health Act 1984” and that police officers will have powers to impose fines.
It’s five days since the government announced that the wearing of face-coverings will become compulsory on public transport in England and six days – next Monday – before the rule comes into effect. Discussion of this measure to impede the spread of the coronavirus has been going on for a long time and Sadiq Khan has been advocating it for weeks. Now that it’s about to become a legal requirement, what will happen to people who don’t comply?
At least one of the unions representing transport workers is concerned. Finn Brennan, ASLEF district organiser for the Underground and London Trams, has welcomed the move – “It should have been made weeks ago” – but has also been seeking more detail about London Underground’s plans to enforce it.
“Staff are worried about the potential for conflict with passengers who refuse to were masks, and for arguments between passengers,” he says. “There will need to be a strong and visible presence from the British Transport Police (BTP) to make sure people entering the system are wearing masks and to generally support staff.” Last week, Brennan told LBC there had been “a very, very low take-up” of voluntary coverings on the networks and said “staff cannot be expected to put themselves at risk”.
What will the powers of the BTP, a national organisation, be in these situations? They operate on the rail system and the Underground. A statement released by the BTP at the time of the announcement said “BTP has no powers regarding the National Rail Conditions of Travel, which is a contract between the train operators and the passenger travelling.”
No powers? The train company can refuse entry to a service of its conditions are being breached by would-be passengers. But the BTP, in its own words, can only “encourage them to comply”. There is no mention in the statement of the London Underground, to which “conditions of carriage” apply. Similar terms are set down for the Docklands Light Railway while London trams are covered by by-laws. Presumably, where face-coverings are concerned, encouragement is the most BTP officers can provide on those transport modes in London too. Buses could be another story altogether.
The hope must be that persuasion and goodwill will, in most cases, do the trick. TfL has begun piloting distribution of free, single-use face-coverings at Tube and bus stations that have been busy during the lockdown period, presumably to encourage people to make a habit of it. This pilot will last for a couple of weeks. After that, it will be pretty much up to Londoners to adopt the new sartorial accessory that has lately entered our lives when travelling by bus, tram, rail, DLR or Tube. Social pressure might be the most effective way to ensure that the reluctant confirm.
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